On the heels of Kentucky’s most celebrated event, a recent report finds Kentucky number one in a category that it doesn’t want to be first: the highest percentage of children in the nation who have had a parent in jail. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but not even the best mint julep can take away the sting from the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s latest finding that 13 percent of Kentucky children reported that they had a parent incarcerated at some point. This is nearly double the national average of seven percent and another hurdle too high for many of our youngest to bear.
The new report, “A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Kids, Families and Communities,” said “[h]aving a parent incarcerated is a stressful, traumatic experience of the same magnitude as abuse, domestic violence and divorce. ” The latest revelation of parental incarceration, coupled with the startling statistics we already knew—high rates of illicit drug use, poverty and underperforming schools—makes healthy development for too many Kentucky children a longshot.
One in four children in Kentucky live in poverty. In the eastern Kentucky counties of Martin, Lee and Wolfe counties, more than half the children are impoverished. Substance abuse of alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs for children grades 9-12 is alarmingly high. And underperforming schools, especially in our inner cities all add up to a bad bet on Kentucky’s future. Yet, kids aren’t colts on a horse track and we shouldn’t be talking about 3-1 odds on whether a child will make it in life.
One might ponder how so many parents lost their moral imagination, scratched their commitment to their own flesh and blood (135,000 Kentucky kids altogether have had a parent in jail) and entered into criminal activity at some point. While speculating may be irresistible, obligation of our leaders to address the crisis is in order.
So how does this happen in a politically divisive climate where the chasm between conservatives and liberals seems unbridgeable? Look no further than Churchill Downs. If the most prominent leaders of all political stripes can sit side by side and watch the Run for the Roses, perhaps they can meet in the halls of our institutions and civilly discuss a race far more important than the Derby. In this one, Kentucky’s children and their future is at stake.
This is not a mere call for more money, more programs, more government involvement—however, each plays a role at some level—but arguably each has received inordinate favor in dealing with societal breakdown and human needs. The conversation out of the gate must begin with the trifecta for a healthy life: faith, family and community. All are connected and all necessary for the development of healthy children. The ideas of nurturing family relationships, strengthening community bonds, adhering to healthy societal boundaries, and welcoming the faith community into the conversation have all been neglected.
The prevailing model for maintaining children’s well-being and overall societal health is badly broken. Comprehensive solutions to giving children a better chance at life requires leaders and policy makers to muster the courage to exit their partisan foxholes and meet in the middle. One camp must admit that more money and Washington programs are insufficient. The other must realize that rugged individualism is inadequate for children struggling in broken homes and poverty.
As the race for Kentucky’s children goes down the stretch, the oddsmakers might set a line on whether we can collectively agree upon a better framework for their health and likelihood of winning in life, but then again, children shouldn’t be considered just another gamble.
Richard Nelson is the executive director of the Commonwealth Policy Center, a nonprofit public policy organization. He resides in Cadiz with his wife and children.