New study finds Kentucky first in nation for children living with relatives, mass incarceration a major factor

Special Project, an independent network of artist and advocates, offer children’s activities every Sunday. Here Mari, who does not have an incarcerated parent, works on a project. | Courtesy of Special Project

An analysis of U.S. Census data has revealed that Kentucky ranks first in the nation for children living with relatives and places the blame at the feet of addiction and mass incarceration, according to state advocacy groups.

Kentucky Youth Advocates said in a news release Wednesday that the number of children living with relatives in Kentucky jumped to 96,000 during the years 2016 to 2018 — a 55 percent increase from 2013 to 2015 when that number was 53,000.

The report was conducted as part of the Kentucky Smart on Crime Coalition, a consortium of nonprofits and advocacy groups, which put the numbers in the broader context of Kentucky’s growing carceral state. Citing statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice that show Kentucky’s prison population has been growing despite a national decline in jailed populations, the Commonwealth rose two spots over the last year to become the state with the ninth highest incarceration rate in the nation.

It also highlighted the state’s grim female incarceration rate, which is double the national average and currently ranks second in the nation. In 2017, just over 70 percent of female state prisoners were mothers, compared to 59 percent of male prisoners who are fathers.

According to data from Louisville Metro Corrections, 13 percent of its inmate population in 2017 were white females, and four percent were black women. The LMDC does not currently provide information about the percentage of its inmate population who are parents.

Daniel Cameron, a spokesman for the Kentucky Smart on Crime Coalition, identified substance abuse and a lack of adequate state legislation to provide treatment alternatives to prison as factors for the trend.

“It is important leaders in Frankfort focus on policies that expand treatment, so we can end the revolving door of incarceration and break the vicious cycle of substance abuse,” Cameron said.

The findings support similar research conducted by The Special Project, a network of artists and advocates that coordinate activities for children whose parents are housed in Louisville Metro Correctional facilities. That research, which was jointly produced with the Louisville Center for Health Equity published last month, found that Kentucky ranks second in the nation for children whose parents are incarcerated.

Judith Jennings, the founder of The Special Project, said that the new data wasn’t surprising but remains troubling.

I’m deeply concerned about the future of these children,” Jennings told Insider. “I believe that there’s many causes of the high rate of incarceration in Kentucky,” including the role judges, police, prosecutors, local and state representatives play and the handling of drug abuse as a crime.

But she also said that citizens and the media focus too much on policing as a means to reduce crime without understanding the alternatives or the effects it has on families.

“In the media and in the community, I think that that debate gets only played out in terms of ‘safety.’ But whose safety are you talking about? If you have … ‘hot spot policing,’ more and more police in neighborhoods, is this going to make you safer? And there is a fear element here, but I wonder if having armed policemen could or could not make children really feel safer.”

Jennings said she is hopeful that the public is finally beginning to understand the cyclical effect such trauma has on children, but that more work remains to be done.

Norma Hatfield, a grandmother and advocate living in Hardin County, said in a separate news release that the increased burden on families is directly related to locking up drug abusers, calling caregivers “quiet heroes.”

“All they want is to be able to provide for the most basic needs of Kentucky’s vulnerable children,” Hatfield said. “We must connect these families with the support they need and deserve.”