I can't think of a much more helpless position to be in that as a parent of a child who is serving time in prison or jail. While you have likely made decisions in your life that you would like to take back, the fact is that your mistakes do not necessarily have to define your relationship with your child. Nobody would try to make the argument that being incarcerated is ideal for a parent, but I think that it is also not true that you have no opportunity to engage with your child and forge a relationship with him or her- even from a distance.
Your support system of family and friends are your first line of defense against your child losing touch with you while you are incarcerated. These folks can work together with you to schedule times where your child can visit you. Additionally, while your child is looking for reassurance that they are capable of achieving positive things in their life, your support system is there to reinforce the positive attributes that you have taught your child over the years. Even if you cannot be there on a day in and day out basis, you can lean on your support system to help you maintain a relationship with your child.
What to do once you begin serving your sentence in prison
It is up to you to make sure that your child knows that you care for him or her and that you are committed to doing whatever it takes to take part in their life. Protecting your child from the court system and/or issues with their other parent should be your primary objective to that end.
As an incarcerated parent, you may have the opportunity to write letters to your child and even to make phone calls on occasion. Keep in mind that it is up to your child’s other parent to make a decision whether or not to allow those phone calls or letters to be received by your child. Sometimes if you have a court order in place, the order will state specifically that your child’s other parent must allow those attempts at contact to be received by your child. If not, you should reach out to your child’s other parent to see if communication will be possible. You can have a member of your family or a close family friend contact the parent to relay your request.
What can you do to help your child understand why you are incarcerated?
Most children will not be old enough to understand exactly why you are incarcerated. To them, it will appear that one day you were living in your home as usual, and then the next thing they knew you were in prison and away from him or her. Children thrive on consistency and stability in their lives and your being incarcerated will certainly make for a difficult adjustment period for your child.
When you get an opportunity to speak to your child about what led you to be incarcerated, you should remember to keep the focus on your child and not on you. This will help your child to not only get a better idea about why you are incarcerated but also to get a better idea about how your concern is with him or her and not yourself. If you are able to write letters to your child, consider doing so in an age-appropriate manner. It may be that you last saw your child years ago. Keep in mind that as your child ages you can write differently and share different things with him or her.
You should affirm your love for your child and share the pride that you take in their growth and development. These are the types of things that you would be doing in your normal life with him or her, the main difference now is that you have to share these sentiments via letter rather than in a person to person interaction. You do not need to spend an entire letter explaining yourself or justifying past actions of yours. Sharing happy memories and reassuring your child about the future is a good route to take.
Stick to the truth
There is no point in being untruthful with your child in this situation. I am not telling you that you need to share every single detail with your child about why you are incarcerated, but I am telling you that allowing your child to feel your honesty in letters and in person will allow you to build a level of trust with him or her. Trust is important in any relationship, but especially in one where you cannot see your child very frequently. This can mean not telling your child when you think you are going to get home. Help him or her to understand that you do not have direct control over your release date, but that you will do everything you can to get home to him or her.
You are still a parent to your child
Just because you are in prison doesn’t mean that you are not a parent to your child. It may feel like you are not in a strong position to parent your child, but you should take seriously your responsibility to your child and do whatever you can to take advantage of the time you are allowed with him or her. Your child has the right to contact you. There is an emotional need for your child to be able to interact with you on some level. That does not go away just because you are in jail.
One part of this discussion that is especially difficult for many incarcerated parents to accept is that you are relying on your child’s other parent to prepare him or her for visits with you. Before your child comes to visit you or accepts a phone call from you, the other parent should make sure the child understands what is about to happen and about what to expect from the interaction.
Once the visit has taken place between you and your child, the other parent should encourage him or her to talk about their feelings and to ask questions. If the other parent is able to listen to your child, provide context for him or her and then encourage their expressing feelings about seeing you then you all will be in a good position as far as having as strong a relationship as is possible.
What happens in a situation if you become incarcerated after a court order is issued in your family law case?
If you were not already incarcerated during your child custody or divorce case then there is likely nothing in your orders that states a thing about parenting while incarcerated. By the same token, your child’s other parent is therefore not obligated to bring your child to visit you in prison or jail. The reason for this is that since you are the party responsible for picking up your child for visitation if you fail to pick him or her up at the predetermined time and location it is viewed as a forfeiture of your right tovisitation.
As I mentioned a moment ago, you may be able to write letters to your child and even make phone calls when you are incarcerated. It will all depend on what your facility will allow you to do and what your child’s other parent will allow your child to receive from you. Some parents that I have seen will make it extremely difficult for the incarcerated parent to attempt to have a relationship with the child while or she is in prison. It is a smart thing to do for you to reach out to the other parent first before attempting contact with your child.
Since you are relying on the other parent to such a great extent you should do everything you can to get on their good side. I understand that those sort of opportunities will be limited given that you are a prison. However, if the opportunity presents itself for you to be respectful and appreciative you should take advantage of those.
One thing that I will warn you about is that your child’s other parent may move while you are incarcerated. He or she should be obligated to update you whenever he or she moves but given that you are incarcerated that may prove more difficult. You should check with the clerk from your court to see if their address has been updated in the court records. This is an easy way for you to lose track of your child for an extended period of time.
What happens after you are released from incarceration?
Unless a judge has been asked to address the existence of a criminal offense by you, your going to jail or prison will not impact your parental rights and duties. If you had visitation rights in your prior court order those orders will still be in place after you are released. A modification of your prior order is possible but you will need to be notified of any attempt by your child’s other parent to do so.
The first time that your child sees you after you are released can be difficult. No matter how much of an effort that you undertook to ensure that you and your child were able to maintain somewhat of a relationship while incarcerated, nothing can make up for the time that you were separated from him or her. You are not going to be able to completely rebuild your relationship with him or her in one day or even one week. You can take it slowly with reintroducing yourself to your child and allow him or her to ask questions and set boundaries.
As we saw with your time being incarcerated, the child’s other parent may have some reluctance in allowing you to jump right back into visitation with your child. It is your job to help reassure him or her that it is fine for you to be able to see your child. Depending on how long you have been gone from your child it may take a long while for you to rebuild that relationship. Make as much of an effort as you can and do as much listening as you do talking.
Talking to your child at their current age and developmental level, and not the age or developmental level where they were when you were sent to prison, is a good place to start. Depending on the personality of your child he or she may not be as willing as you would like when it comes to interacting with you, at least initially. Starting small, with lunch visits or an afternoon playtime session, may help you ease your child into these periods of possession.
Remember that your particular situation is unique to you. You cannot expect to rely on the advice and stories from other people in order to gauge how quickly things will get “back to normal” for you and your child. If you remember the tips that we have been discussing today you will be in a much stronger position to move forward.
Questions about visitation while being incarcerated? Contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan
If you have any questions about the material that we covered today please do not hesitate to contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan. Our licensed family law attorneys can meet with you six days a week for a free of charge consultation. These consultations are a great opportunity to ask questions and to receive direct feedback about your particular circumstances.
Our staff and attorneys take a great deal of pride in being able to represent our neighbors here in southeast Texas. We practice family law in all of the family courts in our area and do so with a desire to fulfill the goals of our clients and to put their interests at the forefront of our efforts.
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