In his 2014 book, Our Kids, sociologist Robert Putnam breaks down the ways that America is failing its less-well-off children. His isn’t a liberal or conservative story–a lot of the book focuses on the terrible impact that family breakdown has in perpetuating poverty (a conservative narrative) and how widening inequality means rich and poor kids live in completely different worlds (a theme of liberals).
Putnam also notes a point that routinely gets ignored in discussions of family stability: the link between rising rates of imprisonment since the 1970s and the increasing number of single-parent families. Mass incarceration, writes Putnam, “has certainly removed a very large number of young fathers from poor neighborhoods, and the effects of their absence, on white and nonwhite kids alike, are known to be traumatic, leaving long-lasting scars.”
It’s even worse for kids with a father on a sex offender registry. Once a father is back home after serving time, often-senseless restrictions make being a good parent well-nigh impossible. In that light, a story not long ago in a newsletter of Reform Sex Offender Laws caught my eye. (I’ve changed the names here to protect those involved.) Here’s the gist:
Jim was a schoolteacher convicted of having a relationship with a 17-year-old female student. He served almost two years in prison before being released on probation. He was permitted full contact with his minor daughter. But he was prohibited from being with his 12-year-old stepson unless he was with his wife or in public places–because they weren’t biologically related. Here’s what happened next.
“My son asked me to get tickets to a basketball game. The arena is a public place, so I knew this was okay. I got the tickets, and he was really excited. I drove my son to the game, where we met with a large group of friends. We all had a great time. Afterwards, we all went out for pizza and my son was so happy.
The next time I saw my probation officer, she told me I’d violated my conditions–not because I went to the game, but because I was alone with my son for the 15-minute car ride to get to the game. This technical violation resulted in a 4-year prison sentence–twice as long as [what I served for] my actual crime. But I’m ok with this because my son asked me to take him to the game. I may have been on probation, but that night I chose to be a father.”
Jim is back in prison. For 4 years. For driving his son to a basketball game.
Registrants across the country have stories like this–of restrictions that cruelly split up families for reasons having no logical relationship to child sexual abuse prevention. (See my story last year in Al Jazeera America for more like this.)
Putnam documents chapter-and-verse what splitting up families does to children. In the name of protecting kids, we’re actually making their lives worse.