Born in 1952, Linda Lewis did not envision being a caretaker for two young children during her golden years. But when her grandson was incarcerated and the mother of her great-grandchildren ran afoul of the Department of Human Services, the Oklahoma City resident became the legal guardian for two of her great-grandchildren: a seven-year-old great-granddaughter and six-year-old great-grandson.
She doesn’t regret her decision. In providing both children a home, Lewis provided them greater stability. But she also, indirectly, limited their access to educational choice.
Oklahoma’s Lindsey Nicole Henry (LNH) Scholarship Act provides funding to the parents of children with special needs as well as the parents of adoptive/foster children, allowing those families to place children in private schools.
Had Lewis not stepped up and cared for her great-grandchildren, they would have likely gone into the foster system and would today be eligible for LNH scholarships. That’s why Lewis today spends much of her free time at the Capitol, moving slowly but surely down the hall with the assistance of a walker, urging legislators to modify the LNH program to include children of incarcerated parents.
“If my children had a foster home, they would have gotten more benefits,” Lewis said. “But because I went to the court without DHS, they don’t get as many things as the kids that are foster-care kids. If they passed the Lindsey Nicole law, then my kids would have more benefits and the chance of going to whichever school that I choose to think is better for them.”
Addressing the needs of children whose parents have been incarcerated is an issue that looms larger in Oklahoma than in most states. Per capita, Oklahoma has more people in prison than almost any state.
In the 2016-2017 school year, more than 135,000 children in Oklahoma, or about 15 percent of children in the state, had a parent who “was ever incarcerated in Oklahoma,” according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
The Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth reports, “On any given day in Oklahoma tens of thousands of children have an incarcerated parent. Considering only those locked up in prisons and county jails and the population turnover of these facilities, the tens of thousands could be multiplied many times over. Put simply, the number of Oklahoma children affected by parental incarceration is staggering.”
In 2017, a report from the National Institute of Justice noted that children whose parents are incarcerated “face a host of challenges and difficulties: psychological strain, antisocial behavior, suspension or expulsion from school, economic hardship, and criminal activity.”
But the report noted that “research suggests that the strength or weakness of the parent-child bond and the quality of the child and family’s social support system play significant roles in the child’s ability to overcome challenges and succeed in life.”
Thus, family members like Lewis who care for such child relatives can do much to improve those children’s lifelong outcomes. But combining such family support with access to quality education can do even more, Lewis notes.
“The prison cycle can be broken by education,” Lewis said. “I’ve seen it done with people in my own family.”
She noted her brother was incarcerated for a period of time, yet his two children have excelled with one in college today and another expected to graduate high school as valedictorian and attend college.
“I know the cycle can be broken,” Lewis said. “I’ve seen other families that have had children whose parents were incarcerated and the people that raised them pushed education, and those kids went on to have a good life.”
In addition to giving the children of incarcerated parents greater educational opportunities—and access to the same programs that would be available to them had they been made wards of the state in the absence of caring relatives—supporters of the proposed changes to the LNH program believe it could result in an increased number of education providers that focus solely on children of incarcerated parents.
The Little Light Christian School in Oklahoma City, a tuition-free private school, is one such provider already in operation. The school describes its mission simply: “Little Light Christian school exists to break the cycle of incarceration by educating, empowering and encouraging children with incarcerated parents and their families.”
LNH funding has increased the number of specialized providers elsewhere. While some private schools existed to serve children with special needs before the creation of the LNH program, others sprang up after the program made private school feasible for more families, including one school that specifically serves those with autism.
With that goal in mind, Lewis continues to meet with legislators to encourage them to think of the long-term future of these children.
“Stop and think: What if that was your child?” Lewis said. “What if you got into trouble and you ended up in prison and somebody helped you raise your children, and they don’t have the same life that they had before you got in trouble?”
She notes many incarcerated parents were “young and made mistakes,” but policymakers can ensure the cycle ends with the current generation.
“If we can help their children to keep from making that mistake,” Lewis said, “we as a state will be very proud.”