AUSTIN — Texas children who have incarcerated parents suffer from trauma and emotional instability at the same magnitude as abuse and domestic violence, according to research study released Monday.

The study could carry a significant message in Texas, a state with a historically high-incarceration rate that also has had limited funding for mental-health programs that could divert additional people from the nation’s largest state criminal-justice system.

“Shared Sentence,” the report written by the philanthropy group Annie E. Casey Foundation, states that more than 477,000 Texas children — 7 percent of the state’s child population — have experienced trauma after being separated from their parents.

Nationally, 5.1 million children have been affected, according to the study.

According to the report, a child who has a parent behind bars can face increased mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, that hamper educational achievement. Those children are more likely to contend with poor mental and physical health as adults.

Laura Speer, one of the report’s  authors, said research also shows a significant impact on financial stability for families left behind by an incarcerated parent, with a 20 percent decline in income.

“The bottom line is that about 65 percent of families have said they cannot meet their basic needs,” Speer said. “That means they’re unable to pay for basic necessities, food or rent.”

In recent years, Texas has been working to reduce incarceration rates for non-violent drug offenders, as well as funding more mental-health programs for people in jails and prisons — although funding for children of felons is not a specific target.

Katharine Ligon, policy analyst with the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities, said Texas needs to invest more in child-development programs to decrease the number of kids involved in the child welfare system.

“This report will provide the opportunity at the next legislative session to talk about smart-on-crime initiatives and implement community based supervision and treatment services to keep families together,” Ligon said.

The report recommends that state and federal criminal-justice systems develop expanded visitation policies to better maintain parental relationships, to connect more parents with employment opportunities after their sentences end, and to do more to focus resources on high-poverty neighborhoods with access to housing, good schools and key resources.

Many ex-felons go to live in those neighborhoods after they serve the prison time, especially in large cities like Houston.

“We are calling on states and communities to act now, so that these kids have equal opportunity and a fair chance for the bright future they deserve,” said Patrick McCarthy, president and CEO of the Casey Foundation.

This article was published in the Houston Chronicle April 25, 2016. 

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