An award-winning journalist's "heart wrenching" (The San Antonio Observer) look at children with parents in prison -- a Newsweek "book of the week," San Francisco Chronicle “book of the year” and an East Bay Express bestseller.

In this "moving condemnation of the U.S. penal system and its effect on families" (Parents' Press), award-winning journalist Nell Bernstein takes an intimate look at parents and children—over two million of them—torn apart by our current incarceration policy. Described as "meticulously reported and sensitively written" by Salon, the book is "brimming with compelling case studies...and recommendations for change" (Orlando Sentinel); Our Weekly Los Angeles calls it "a must-read for lawmakers as well as for lawbreakers."

But Chesa Boudin summarized it best, “This is the book we children of prisoners have been waiting for.”


Anthony was a slight and restless boy of ten with pale skin and huge brown eyes. In a nearly bare office adjacent to the room where his grandmother was attending a support group, he was in and out of his chair, squirming and wriggling, his eyes wandering the room.

"I lived with my mother and her boyfriend and then they made drugs and sold them in the shed and I was in the house and they weren't even watching me," he said in one breath.

While his mother cooked methamphetamine, Anthony watched television. That is what he was doing the day the police came. Anthony was five years old. The police broke down the door, then smashed through the floorboards looking for drugs. Anthony remembers a lot of things shattered or crushed after that, things that had belonged to his grandfather. He remembers an officer putting him in the back of a police car. He was frightened, and didn't know where he was being taken.

"It's kiddie jail," he said of the children's shelter in which he found himself. "A jail for kids. Actually, it's not punishment. Actually, they punished me, though. Someone stole my watch. And they gave me clothes too small for me. They keep you in cells—little rooms that you sleep in, and you have nothing except for a bed, blankets, and sheets. You couldn't even go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. They wouldn't let you out."

At the shelter, Anthony cried for his mother and his grandmother. His grandmother came right away when she learned what had happened, but it was two and a half weeks—and three family court hearings—before Anthony was released from the shelter and permitted to go home with her. She lived in another county, and child welfare authorities insisted that she secure local housing before they would release Anthony to her care.

"He was in so much pain," she said of the boy who met her at the shelter. "He jumped in my arms from across the room and said, 'Granny, get me out of here.'"

Anthony remembers the day he left the shelter. "I had a Wolverine and an Incredible Hulk in a plastic baggie in one hand and the other hand was holding my grandma and we ran down the street as fast as we can, away from the shelter."

Anthony's mother is out of jail now, trying to stay clean. Anthony knows if she slips up, the police will take her away again. He fears it will happen to him, too. Because of the way he was taken there, and how little was explained to him, the shelter has come to haunt Anthony.

"The third time you go in the children's shelter, you can never go out until you're eighteen. My uncle told me, and it's true, too."

Anthony drew from his mother's arrest a few simple lessons: his mother was bad. He was bad. Authority was destructive. It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which a parent's arrest would not be wrenching for a child. But Anthony's fear and sorrow might have been eased by steps as simple as having someone take him into another room while his home was searched and talk to him about what was going on, or asking his mother if there were someone she might call to care for him.

These things happen, sometimes, when an individual officer thinks of them, or a chief mandates them. But the majority of police departments have no written protocol delineating officers' responsibility to the children of arrested parents, and those protocols that do exist vary widely in their wording and their implementation. A national survey by the American Bar Association (ABA) Center on Children and the Law found that only one-third of patrol officers will handle a situation differently if children are present. Of that third, only one in five will treat a suspect differently if children are present. One in ten will take special care to protect the children.

The result is that an event that is by its nature traumatic—the forcible removal by armed strangers of the person to whom children naturally look for protection—happens in ways that are virtually guaranteed to exacerbate, rather than mitigate, that trauma.

A national study found that almost 70 percent of children who were present at a parent's arrest watched their parent being handcuffed, and nearly 30 percent were confronted with drawn weapons. When researcher Christina Jose Kampfner interviewed children who had witnessed their mothers' arrests, she found that many suffered classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome—they couldn't sleep or concentrate, and they had flashbacks to the moment of arrest. If an arrested parent later returns home on parole or probation, officers often have license to enter the house at will—meaning that children may relive that trauma in their living rooms as well as their imaginations.

Police often plan raids for late-night or early-morning hours, when those they seek are most likely to be home with their families. That ups the odds that police will get their man, but also that children will awaken to see it happen. It should come as no surprise that sleep disorders follow.

Some narcotics officers report that they have children searched before releasing them to a relative or a shelter, in case they have drugs in their clothing or diaper. Washington Post re-porter Leon Dash interviewed the son of a longtime drug dealer and prostitute who recalled being forced to strip and spread his buttocks inside his own apartment during police raids.

When police deem children in need of child protective services, the majority deliver the children in a police car rather than having a child welfare worker pick them up in a less-intimidating vehicle. About one-fourth of police departments routinely bring children first to the police station rather than to a shelter or other civilian destination. Officers who find themselves responsible for children at the time of an arrest complain that their "babysitting" responsibilities interfere with their ability to do their real job.

"It is unfair to keep young children at the police station," one officer told the ABA researchers. "This is not a good place to watch children; there is no place to eat; they can't sleep here; we often don't have the supplies to take care of them, especially infants."

A child who is picked up by police officers, transported in a police car, and deposited at the police station—where he may be deprived of food and sleep—will almost inevitably experience himself as having been arrested. To all intents and purposes, he has been.