Nearly 1 in 12 Maine children have a parent who has served time in prison or jail. That is above the national average and the highest rate in New England, according to a report out Monday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

“A Shared Sentence: The devastating toll of parental incarceration on kids, families and communities” ticks off the harsh side effects: the remaining parent having a hard time covering basic needs, frequent moves and, when it’s a mother in jail, children who are more likely to live with grandparents or enter foster care.

Nationally, an average 7 percent of children have a parent who is serving time or has in the past. In Maine, it’s 8 percent, or 20,000 children.

“That was surprising for a small state like Maine,” said Claire Berkowitz, executive director of the Maine Children’s Alliance. “It’s something to pay attention to.”

Amanda Woolford, director of women’s programs for the Maine Correctional Center Women’s Center in Windham, the only state prison for women, and the Southern Maine Re-Entry Center in Alfred, said progress has been made in just the past year in better connecting incarcerated moms with their children.

There are about 130 women in the prison, 68 in pre-release.

Through a peer-parenting program developed by Family Crisis Counseling in 2015 with a yearlong grant, women have started recording story books in a “Read to me, Mommy” program, sharing experiences and learning how to navigate the basics.

“Even help with, ‘How do I make a phone call to my son’s teacher to ask how he’s doing in school, or ‘Can I write a letter, is that appropriate?'” Woolford said. “One of the biggest (things) that comes out, (is) ‘I feel like such a hypocrite when I tell my children to behave and be good while Mommy’s gone, while Mommy’s here because she wasn’t so good.’

“It’s kind of like AA for parenting,” she said. “‘I was a crappy mom, or I’m a recovering crappy mom.'”

A year ago, they also started letting moms and children Skype.

“They can sit in real time (and discuss) ‘This is what I did in school today,’ ‘Oh, let me see your homework.’ ‘What does the Christmas tree look like?’ — that type of stuff we take for granted,” Woolford said. “We knew that it would be a good thing, but I don’t think we understood the impact it was going to have on them when we started doing it.”

Jody Breton, deputy commissioner at the Maine Department of Corrections, said the state also offers classes in parenting, healthy relationships and InsideOut Dad, a national program for incarcerated fathers.

The Annie E. Casey report ends with several suggestions for change. Berkowitz said she’d like adequate drug treatment programming in Maine to keep people, in some cases, from landing in jail in the first place.

She’d also like to see Maine join the “ban the box” movement with 23 other states, eliminating the initial question about criminal history on job applications.

“That background check happens later in the process of hiring so that someone is not just left off of being considered because they once had an incarceration,” Berkowitz said. “It opens up opportunity for people who are trying to change their lives” and give their children a more stable home once they’re out of prison.

Crisis & Counseling Centers, based in Augusta, four years ago created a “Parenting and Caregiving After Prison” series for women in the York County Jail.

Next Monday, the agency will screen the Sesame Street program “Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration” at the  Children’s Discovery Museum in Augusta. Laurie Cavanaugh, regional parent support coordinator, said she’s shown the Sesame Street video to the women in her after-prison series and has gotten eye-opening reactions.

“In the video, some of the children are teased from other kids and they have serious emotions around their parent being in jail,” Cavanaugh said. “There (have) been some instances where parents haven’t told their children where they are and after watching the video, they wanted to be totally open and honest with their kids.

“It’s like they had a way to communicate with their kids what happened,” she said. “They were in jail and, ‘We’re going to make the best of this, and we can still have a relationship, and I’m going to do better.'”

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Children, parents and prison

The numbers and rates of children in the U.S. and in New England who have or have had a parent in prison or jail, according to a new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation:

United States: 5,113,000 (7 percent of the population)

Connecticut: 36,000 (5 percent)

Maine: 20,000 (8 percent)

Massachusetts: 69,000 (5 percent)

New Hampshire: 15,000 (5 percent)

Rhode Island: 5,000 (5 percent)

Vermont: 7,000 (6 percent)


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