Parents Who Keep Landing in Jail Try to Break the Cycle : Oregon: A program in Coos County offers inmates weekly instruction to try to prevent generations of the same families from ending up behind bars.


Soon after Louis and Doreen Montez were busted for growing pot in their closet, their 11-year-old son was arrested for joining a joy ride in a county pickup truck.

“He said he was angry at us,” Doreen Montez told a group of parents serving time in the Coos County Jail. “He was afraid he would end up back in a foster home.”

“Your son’s decision to steal a car--that was a real way to get even with you guys,” said counselor Glen Elner. “There is nobody going to take care of your kid better than you. The thing is, you can’t take care of your kid in here.”

Elner is a clinical child and family therapist with the Pacific Child Center in nearby North Bend, which is offering weekly classes for the jailed parents.


Jail administrator Gordon Ogden embraced the program because he wants to break a cycle that finds generation after generation of the same families checking in and out of the county jail.

“At times, we’ve had three generations of a family in here,” Ogden said.


Financed by a $10,000 grant from National Head Start, the Coos County classes are based on a curriculum developed by the Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents at Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena.


It is being used in seven prisons and a dozen jails around the country.

Karen Helland of South Coast Head Start brought the program to Coos County after learning that nine out of 16 children in one Head Start class had a family member in jail.

“I felt we just didn’t have enough information on what was happening to these children,” Helland said. “Do you take them to the police station and say the policeman is a good guy when they’ve just taken away Mom or Dad? Is shame a trauma they experience? All these questions came bubbling up.”

Guards gave up half of their lunchroom for a room filled with toys, a rocking chair and a changing table where inmates can play with their children, rather than just talk to them over a telephone through a pane of glass.


One night, five women and eight men showed up for class, dressed in their jail coveralls and plastic sandals. On any given day, 1.5 million children in the United States have a parent in jail or prison, said Denise Johnston, director of the Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents. There are 80,000 mothers behind bars and 800,000 fathers.

If you include parents on probation or parole, the number of children goes up to 3.5 million.

“If we’re going to fight crime, we ought to fight it where it begins, with little tiny children,” Jean Harris, who taught parenting classes while in prison in New York, said from her home in Monroe, N.H. Harris, a former girls’ school headmistress, served 12 years for the 1980 slaying of Scarsdale Diet Dr. Herman Tarnower.

People in jail don’t need to learn to be better parents so much as they need to learn to straighten out their own lives, Johnston said.


“The research available on these parents shows they have appropriate parenting attitudes, appropriate parenting concerns,” explained Johnston. “What they have a problem with is behavior. They have the problem because of other issues, like addiction. The concept is to help the parent gain insight into how he or she got where they are in terms of their behaviors--where their behaviors came from.”

The cycle of generations of the same families going to prison or jail can be traced to childhood trauma, particularly among the poor, Johnston said.

“Children who are traumatized very often grow up to be parents with compulsive parenting problems,” said Johnston.

“Those parents don’t do a good job of protecting their children from another round of bad experiences. Every bad thing we know that happens to children increases among the poor: child abuse, child neglect, domestic violence, all this stuff that we know hurts.”


It’s a tough job trying to change people’s lives. Johnston said only 5% of people change their behavior because of learning an idea.

“We’re not going to fix everything in here,” said Elner. “The emphasis is to make better choices for themselves and they will make better choices for their children.”

Since going to jail for dealing methamphetamine, Shannon Baker is looking at her own life through her 12-year-old daughter’s eyes.

Baker saw her daughter go from an A-student and star of an anti-drug program to a “rebel without a cause” who cut off much of her hair and dyed what was left.


“Here’s her mother in jail for drugs,” Baker said. “Maybe she thinks she’s been brought down to that level.”