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llinois prison populations have more than doubled over the past 20 years, yet school officials have no idea how many students are affected, and advocates disagree about whether they should be identified.

There’s no official count, yet one expert notes that some 2 percent of children in Chicago’s public schools had a mom in prison.

Rosa Cho, an assistant professor at Brown University who has a database that links mothers in prison with school records, provided Catalyst Chicago with exclusive school-by-school data on children whose mothers were in prison between 1991 and 2002. A Catalyst analysis found that schools most likely to enroll children with incarcerated parents are those grappling with concentrated poverty and high crime rates. (See map.)

Between 1992 and 2005, the number of female inmates in Illinois prisons skyrocketed almost 100 percent to nearly 3,000, and the number of women admitted to Cook County Jail over the course of a year jumped nearly 50 percent to more than 14,000. National studies have shown that about two-thirds of women in state prisons are mothers—60 percent of whom were living with their children before incarceration.

Jo Anne Roberts, principal of Paderewski Elementary in South Lawndale, believes she knows which children at her school have parents in prison. “Students tell me,” she says. “I had one little boy wrap his arms around my waist and say, ‘Mrs. Roberts, this weekend my mommy went to jail.'”

But other principals say they don’t know which of their students is dealing with this issue, but they would like to. Schools are the last to know, says Principal Gwendolyn E. McClinton of Price Elementary in Kenwood.

Principal Michelle Smith of Marconi Community Academy in West Garfield says she usually finds out by happenstance. A caregiver, like a grandmother, will drop in and say, “The student is with me.” Or Smith will try to contact a mother and the child will say, “My mom’s in jail.”

Smith would like to have a formal process for getting the information, yet concedes schools may not be the best institution to address these children’s needs. “The district has minimal resources. I am afraid that if we try to do too much, we become minimally effective,” she says.

In California, advocates for children of prisoners are developing a protocol that instructs police or child protective services to notify schools when parents are placed under arrest.

But some worry that information may go to the wrong person. The biggest dangers are a teacher or school social worker will stereotype the child or will say negative things about the mother, says Gail T. Smith, executive director of Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers.

“Sometimes it can be more damaging than helpful,” Smith says. “I have talked to families who say it is the worst thing that they did.”

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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