Maine ranked highest among the New England states for the percentage of children with an incarcerated parent, according to a new national report aimed at increasing awareness about how imprisonment affects children and families.

During the two-year period from 2011 to 2012, roughly 20,000 children in Maine – or 8 percent of the child population – reported that at least one parent had been imprisoned during their childhood. That compares with 6 percent in Vermont and 5 percent in the four other New England states. Nationally, 7 percent of children have had a parent incarcerated during their childhood, according to an analysis of federal child health data by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count project.

Maine ranked 14th highest nationally.

Claire Berkowitz, executive director of the Maine Children’s Alliance, said she and others were not expecting to see such high number for the state.

“I hope it raises awareness,” said Berkowitz, whose nonprofit is the Maine partner for the Annie E. Casey’s Kids Count project. “It raised my awareness. It shines a light on a group of children in our country and in our state that people often don’t consider” when debating imprisonment issues.

The report, titled “A Shared Sentence,” states that “in America’s age of mass incarceration, millions of children are suffering the consequences of their parents’ sentences and our nation’s tough-on-crime practices.”

This was the first time the foundation analyzed parental incarceration data and only included figures for parents who had lived with the children at some point. While it was not possible on Tuesday to say how Maine’s parental incarceration rates have changed over the years, the number of female inmates within Maine’s jails and prisons is rising. And statistically speaking, children are more likely to be affected when a mother is incarcerated than a father because of the prevalence of single-mother families.

Amanda Woolford, the director of women’s services at the Maine Department of Corrections, said that she was “unfortunately” not surprised by the Maine numbers cited in the report.

“If you look at any one woman who is incarcerated, that could be two, three or four kiddos,” Woolford said. “A good majority of the women we have incarcerated are mothers.”

The Department of Corrections recently broke ground on a new facility for female inmates at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham because the department’s two facilities, in Windham and Alfred, are running out of space. In September 2014, for instance, there were fewer than 80 women at Windham. Since then, the facility has been averaging about 135 female inmates daily. At one point, female inmates were coming in so fast, Woolford said, that some had to be held in county jails.

Woolford said Maine’s opioid crisis is driving the surge, with many of the female inmates serving time for drug-related crimes.

In February, Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick testified before lawmakers that “space for female offenders is at a crisis point and we are currently beyond our female bed capacity.”

Woolford said the department has increased its programming for female inmates in hopes of keeping them connected with their families and helping them to transition back into post-prison life. A recent “peer-parenting program” developed by Family Crisis Services in Portland provides weekly peer-mentoring groups to mothers, while the department offers family-visitation as well as online video chatting between imprisoned mothers and their children at both locations.

“We try to incorporate the families as much as possible because that is where they are going back to” after release, Woolford said.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s report states that parental incarceration adds to the financial burden on families who often are struggling with poverty. Parental imprisonment also can hamper a child’s educational development, while harming their mental or physical health. Serving in prison also can make it more difficult for parents to secure stable, good-paying jobs upon release.

The report calls on states to ensure children of incarcerated parents receive adequate community and social support and access to family caregivers. Inmates who are parents, meanwhile, should receive pre- and post-release counseling. The report also calls on states to give judges flexibility to incarcerate parents in facilities close to their families – a logistical challenge in a large, low-population state like Maine – and to provide employment pathways to inmates upon release.

Laura Speer, associate director for policy reform and advocacy at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, said the five other New England states have seen their prison populations decline at a faster rate over the past decade. That could help explain why 8 percent of Maine children were affected by an incarcerated parent, compared to 5 percent in most of New England states.

Speer said the reality is that states have a bigger impact on sentencing than the federal government.

“There is a lot of conversation happening now about sentencing and sentencing reform at both the state and federal levels,” Speer said. “What we wanted to do was expand that conversation to kids and to their families.”

Berkowitz with the Maine Children’s Alliance believes the report raises important issues for schools, communities and the government.

“One of the recommendations is making sure the children are supported,” she said. “I hope that when a parent is incarcerated, that agencies in the community … are aware so they can help support that child.”

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: KevinMillerPPH