When a loved one goes to prison, the family serves a sentence, too.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Often, when a child's mom or dad goes to prison, Grandma or Grandpa is left with the immense task of raising their grandchild(ren).
Sunday, Sept. 8, is Grandparents Day, a holiday honoring grandmothers and grandfathers everywhere. Today we want to recognize those family members who make significant sacrifices to care for children of prisoners.
When a judge slams the gavel after declaring the sentence, the convicted person isn't the only one whose life changes forever. Their loved ones' world changes, too.
Children are perhaps most deeply impacted. How kids cope with their parents' absence largely depends on their caregivers' capacity to protect and provide for them. But the load isn't light. Most caregivers are saddled with overwhelming responsibilities.
Consider these common financial burdens alone:
- Seventy percent of children's caretakers are over the age of 50. About 55% of children live with a caregiver who doesn't have a spouse. And 19% live in households with four or more children living. (Hairston)
- Caregivers may have to leave their jobs in order to take better care of the children. Those caregivers who are no longer working often exhaust their retirement savings in order to pay for children's needs. (La Vigne)
- Forty-one percent of children with incarcerated prisoners live in households with caregivers who earn incomes below the federal poverty level. (Hairston)
FINDING HOME AND HARMONY
Often, when a child's mom or dad goes to prison, Grandma or Grandpa is left with the immense task of raising their grandchild(ren). North Carolina native Marilyn Brown, and her husband, Lionel, know the journey well. They have faced their fair share of struggles moving from state to state with four young grandsons in tow. Their mom, the Browns’ adopted daughter, hadn't been able to care for them since they were small. The father of the two oldest boys, Jacori and Jaelin, has been in prison for more than 11 years.
For more than a decade, Marilyn comforted her grandchildren through all the missed birthdays and first days of school. All the tears. The countless miles driven to and from prison visits. And there’s no telling how many hours she spent helping with homework. All the while, the family moved around.
Washington State was home at first. The Browns moved the family to southern California seeking greater opportunities for the boys, but Marilyn doesn’t recall their year in Los Angeles fondly: "The crime in the area we moved in was not safe for us to stay.”
But they feel safe now in Lake Elsinore, California, where they've made a home and joined Providence Missionary Baptist Church. Jacori and Jaelin, now 16 and 13, sing in the choir and play several instruments. Between music lessons, they help create harmony in the community, with service projects like food and clothing giveaways.
Both boys have participated in Angel Tree® at Christmas and throughout the year, which gives Marilyn hope in every season. The Prison Fellowship® program, including Angel Tree Sports Clinic™ and Angel Tree Camping®, builds pathways of connection between prisoners and their children and reminds little ones that they have hope for a bright future.
Jaelin and Jacori have had this hope reinforced time and again, and by extension, so has their grandmother. Marilyn shares, "The kids needed the help when they started getting toys [and] gift cards, and their father's name on the gift made a difference."
GIVING BACK, GIVING HOPE
Marilyn is proud of the young men they are becoming, with ambitious goals for school and beyond. Most of all, she is thankful they all have a support system—Grandma and Grandpa included.
Marilyn's church and programs like Angel Tree anchored her family to their confidence in Christ. Now, Marilyn can't help but give back. She serves locally on the board for Community Outreach Ministry, a group that pours into at-risk children and supports their success. And she continues to help her grandsons be all they can be.
"Something that makes me proud is all the things my grandma does for us," says Jacori, "always striving to help us succeed. She never puts us down. She always lifts us up."
LIFT UP CAREGIVERS AND FAMILIES
Caregivers of prisoners' children often grapple with outside judgment. They may feel the need to withhold information or isolate themselves from connections that could help them. Many people caring for children of prisoners report being estranged from extended family and disconnected from support systems.
Families of the incarcerated need support and a listening ear—not judgment. This Grandparents Day, let's honor the sacrifices made by grandparents who are raising children all over again while a parent does time. And let's help the children of the incarcerated and their caregivers discover hope, together.
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