Note: This commentary was delivered by Prison Fellowship President Mark Earley.
Where there is crime, there will always be prisons. Where there are prisons, there will always be prisoners. And where there are prisoners — guess what — there will always be children paying the price.
Few children pay the price more than the estimated 600,000 children of prisoners in China. A recent Washington Post article explains that the Cultural Revolution of the sixties and seventies in China taught people to shun “bad elements,” which included China’s prisoners and their children. Today, no government department provides oversight for these children; they are frequently passed around from one begrudging family member to another.
But many face more than a bad reputation and a nomadic lifestyle. Shunned by their villages, many endure taunts and beatings that leave permanent scars on their small bodies. Yang Mei, a social worker at one of the country’s few Children’s Villages, which are privately run homes of refuge for about one thousand of these children, noticed that one child flinched every time she swat at a fly. She learned later that the child’s relatives beat him with a fly-swatter regularly. Another child at the Village has a bald spot on his head where someone beat him with a rock.
Yang went on to say, “Chinese people have some traditional ideas, in that if your father commits crimes, your son will be a criminal, too, or the son will always follow the father’s path.”
Tragically, China is not the only nation with this mindset. In many parts of the world, children are often incarcerated with their mom or dad, since no one else will care for them. I will never forget visiting a Bolivian prison this time last year and seeing disheveled young children lining up for their daily gruel in a prison overcrowded with adult criminals of every stripe.
In America, the children of prisoners carry their own burdens. Beyond the heartbreaking separation from mom or dad, children of American prisoners must endure the mocking voices of classmates ridiculing them for their parent’s crime. They overhear neighbors whispering that they will one day be “just like their dad.” Sadly, the statistics bear this out all too often. Children of prisoners are five to seven times more likely to be incarcerated than their peers.
Thankfully, since 1982, Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree program has made these children a priority. Angel Tree equips churches around the country to reach out to the children of prisoners by providing Christmas gifts for them on behalf of their incarcerated parent, by matching them with a caring Christian mentor, or by sending them to a Christian summer camp. More importantly, Angel Tree demonstrates that God loves them and is with them even when their incarcerated parent can’t be.
This December alone, close to half a million children of prisoners in the United States will receive Christmas gifts and hear about Christ’s transforming love.