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CPS social workers do not know how many of their students have parents in prison, nor do they know exactly what to do for these children.

A Catalyst Chicago survey of 358 school social workers drew responses from 43 of them who represent 63 of the district’s 600-plus schools. The lion’s share of those who responded work in schools in South and West side communities that have a higher than average share of children with an incarcerated parent.

Key findings of the survey are:

* Half of school social workers estimate that at least 10 percent of their students have one or more parents in prison. Five of them say as many as a third or half of students have a parent in prison. Eight others say they have “no idea.”

* Though school social workers usually find out about a parent’s imprisonment from a grandmother or other caregiver, some 16 percent say they learn about it only after a student exhibits negative behavior.

* Few social workers have had any specific training in how to approach issues being confronted by prisoners’ children, and few know about services that cater to them. Some social workers note that their training in how to deal with grief and loss is useful in working with these students.

* CPS social workers would like to refer children with parents in prison to mentoring programs and organizations that facilitate contact between them and their moms and dads, but few know where to go or whether these services exist.

* School social workers differ in their approaches to working with children whose parents are incarcerated. Focus on the child’s social and emotional needs was the response given by 35 percent of social workers; another 28 percent say they do nothing at all. One social worker from Boone Elementary in West Rogers Park says there’s no reason to give these children special attention because “many times the person in prison is just a sperm donor.”

What school staff know about the feelings and needs of children whose parents are incarcerated is critically important to these students’ general development, says Twin Green, who chairs the services and providers committee of a statewide taskforce for children of prisoners.

“Children spend the majority of their days in schools,” says Green, who directs a social service organization in south suburban Markham. “If schools are closed to what these children face, then they miss opportunities to help them and to educate them.”

Nancy Quintana, who oversees CPS social workers, agrees that school staff need to be responsive to these children. Sometimes, a little support can go a long way, she says. Quintana recalls one time, when she was a social worker in an elementary school, she helped a student write a letter to his father in prison. After getting all his feelings out, the student didn’t feel the need to mail it, Quintana says.

“He balled it up and threw it in the trash,” she says. “But he got what he needed to say out and that was what was important.”

Quintana says the district is shifting resources around so that social workers will have more time to engage with students on this level. Last year, social workers’ schedules were adjusted so that they would spend more time in schools with the highest poverty rates and proportions of children in foster care. Previously, social workers’ time was determined solely by the size of a school’s population and the number of special education students.

Since incarceration is linked to poverty, this change should make social workers more available to children with parents in prison. “Poverty affects children in so many ways,” she says.

In a perfect world, Quintana would assign at least one social worker to every school. At an average cost of $50,000 per social worker, it would cost the district as much as $15 million to do this.

‘Inevitable slump in grades’

While the district does not officially track how many students have a parent in prison, it used to be easier for school social workers to find out who was dealing with this situation. Quintana recalls that during her days as a social worker in the 1990s, she could use the school computer to search the Illinois Department of Corrections inmate database, which is public record.

School officials today, however, can no longer access this resource on site because the Web site is blocked, a by-product of the district’s installation of blocking software meant to protect children from Web sites that include adult-oriented words or content.

Louis Ingratta who does social work at Hammond Elementary and ACT Charter High School, both on the West Side, says courts or prisons should notify schools when a parent is arrested or when incarceration begins.

“Then we can at least try to stave off the acting out and the inevitable slump in grades,” he says. “We also can try to get the caregiver help before everything starts going haywire.”

Some social workers note instances where children respond differently to a parent’s incarceration. Rather than act out, some children become very quiet and withdrawn, says social worker Danielle J. Faulkner, who works at Lathrop Elementary in North Lawndale and Westinghouse in Humboldt Park.

“[This is a] kid who knows all of the family secrets when they come to school, a kid who on some days would not be as motivated” or could be depressed, Faulkner says.

And instead of doing poorly in school, a few of these students buck the odds. A social worker in Bridgeport noted that one of her students who was in this situation graduated and was admitted into a selective program at Lincoln Park High School.

Still, most social workers caution that children whose parents are in prison “are automatically at-risk.” A school social worker (who requested that she not be named) in Fuller Park schools estimates that some 40 percent of students there have a parent in prison.

“You know the saying that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree,” she says. One of her 8th-grade students is following the same path as her mother, a known drug addict and prostitute who has done stints in jail. “It’s that bad,” she says.

Longing for someone to talk to

School social workers say they often take the time to find out where these students are living and whether they are in touch with their imprisoned parent. “I find that they are longing for someone to talk about it with,” says social worker Vicki Ramos of Spry Elementary in South Lawndale. “Their families don’t have cars. Sometimes they don’t even have phones.”

Keeping children in contact with parents who are locked up is important, and school staff should steer clear of making judgments about what parents have done, says Helen Gualtieri, who works at Gary Elementary and Big Picture High School. Most of those in prison are there for non-violent, drug-related reasons, she says.

“The parent has made bad choices,” Gualtieri says. “And people tend to take a moralistic view about [parent’s] behavior. But most parents have something that they could share with the child. They might have positive qualities.”

Students who need more attention than a social worker can give will be referred to an outside agency, Quintana says. While Chicago has sufficient resources for social workers to tap into, a few targeted programs for children with parents in prison no longer exist, she adds.

Beyond support programs, institutions, such as courts or prisons, can do more to make sure prisoner’s children don’t suffer along with their parents, suggests Jennifer Aviles, a social worker at Telpochcalli Elementary in South Lawndale. Her idea: Providing families with a case manager who would run interference for these children, who are sometimes sent to stay with a neighbor and then show up the next day at school totally distracted.

“Someone needs to be answering, ‘What happens with the children?'” she says. “There needs to be some sort of follow-up to manage the situation.”

Responding to these issues is a balancing act, particularly in cases where children may feel it’s cool to have a parent in prison, say some social workers. Nine social workers who responded to Catalyst’s survey report that children are not embarrassed by their parent’s incarceration.

Nicole Ross, who works at Bradwell Elementary in South Shore, says she started a support group for these kids. But when it became a bragging session, she stopped.

“They wanted to talk about everyone who got shot and everyone who got stabbed,” she says.

Kristen Berg, one of three social workers at Marquette, a hulking elementary school on the Southwest Side bulging with 1,800 students, says students there wear a family member’s prison stint as a badge of honor.

“They don’t have a problem telling,” she says. “It is not that uncommon. Maybe in a school up North there would be more of a problem.”

And while she says she these children have problems—they are angry, feel abandoned and distrust authority—she’s incredulous when asked what she does for them.

“What would you have us do?” she asks.

Interns Marisol Mastrangelo and Rebecca Harris contributed to this report.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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