A new report recommends ways to help the millions of children nationwide impacted by the incarceration of a parent.

Three percent of New Jersey's children have been separated from a parent due to incarceration, or about 65,000 children, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which released a report Monday recommending how to help the more than 5 million children affected nationwide.

A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Kids, Families and Communities suggests ways to combat the emotional and financial instability that result from having a parent incarcerated.

These children are typically younger, living in low-income families of color and usually have a young single mother who has limited education, the report found.

At 3 percent, New Jersey is the lowest for children separated from their parents by jail or prison. Kentucky tops the list, with 13 percent of its children left behind.

New Jersey already is making some of these strides, including mandatory education that stipulates inmates should be reading at a 12-grade level within 10 years of their release dates, a protocol to enroll all inmates in Medicaid upon their release, and re-entry center programs, like Successful Employment and Lawful Living, Cage Your Rage and Helping Offenders Parent Effectively.

The state's prison population is down 26 percent, but "more can be done to help minimize the trauma children face when separated from a parent due to incarceration," said Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey.

The trauma of separation can increase a child's mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, and hamper educational achievement, the report states.

Even after the parent is out, there are problems including employment and re-establishing the family bond.

"Our nation's over-reliance on incarceration has left millions of children poorer, less stable and emotionally cut off from the most important relationship of their young lives," said Patrick McCarthy, president and CEO of the Casey Foundation.

Children of inmates need support while their parent is away as well as when they return, the study found.

Parents also need to have help getting jobs once they're released and communities need to promote family stability and opportunity, especially in those areas where there is a high percentage of incarceration, the report suggested.

The foundation calls on judges consider the impact on kids and families when sentencing parents, and asks that courts inform local social service agencies and community-based organizations when a parent is incarcerated, so that he or she can connect with families.

Community organizations should also help build family connections and offer family counseling and parenting courses.

The report recognizes that people who break the law must face consequences, but asks that the impact on children be considered.

"The confinement of a parent should not doom a child to a lifetime of closed doors," the report concludes. "Our hopes an d dreams for children of incarcerated parents should be no different from the limitless horizon we seek for all of our children."

Staff writer

Reporter covering courts and crime

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