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WHAT TO SAY AND WHAT NOT TO SAY TO CHILDREN

Being a parent is quite possibly the greatest responsibility  any individual will take upon himself or herself. There is no greater challenge than to be a parent. A person is literally responsible for both the physical and mental health for another human being. This responsibility is in no way abrogated when facing criminal charges, facing prison or even when serving time in prison. If anything a parent in these situations has to take extra steps to make sure that the legal issues he faces does cause him to become derelict in his responsibilities as a parent. Of course, since children will be affected by the trial and/or prison sentence and may be exposed to any potential media coverage of the parent under investigation it is important to understand how to talk yo you children and how how much to tell them. Regardless of how much is said, a child is being asked to grow up a little too fast when a parent is facing criminal charges. The key is to keep a constant balance by telling them enough too keep them prepared but not too much so as to create undue anxiety.

A lot depends on the age of your children. If the children are very young and nothing in the way of a trial or plea is imminent, there really is no reason to tell them very much if anything at all. They will most likely not understand and children are scared by nature. Nothing good will come from telling a child under the age of 10 or so information that he  won'y find out on his own anyway. With children that age, it is best to remember that they need to be insulated as much as possible and the legal troubles outside the home must never impact the ability to be a parent inside the home.

If the children are older, the approach is not as simple. Obviously, if there are articles written about the parent and if their friends in school will know it is important to let them know what is going on. Children need to be told that just because something is written in the newspaper or online does not mean it is true. Unfortunately, the reality is that 90% of the "facts" printed in the newspaper are at best inaccurate and the percentage is even higher for what is posted online. Children even when they are older tend to be scared of the unknown. The need to be reminded that their parents love them and that hopefully everything will work out for the best. It is important to convey to the children that you understand they may have questions and that they can ask them as well.

As the case progresses, kids need to be somewhat included in the developments. For example, if a child finds out on 24 hours notice that his father is going to prison he will be very scared, upset and will not have the time necessary to mentally prepare for what is going to be a cataclysmic change in his life. This does not bode well for trust between a parent and child post-incarceration. By the same token, if an indictment may or may not come or may not come for a couple of years, there is really no point in inserting needless anxiety into a child's life. My wife and I wrestled with how much to tell our children and when, all the while knowing that in the age of Google, they will most likely at some point of their lives research the case on their own anyway.

Once and indictment is imminent, and assuming the children are old enough to understand certain complexities, it is critical to let them know what is going on. Again, less is more. They do need to be told something, just not everything. The only thing worse than their children finding on the 5 o'clock news or from a friend that their parent has been indicted or arrested is the child realizing that the parents knew that this was happening and did not let them know. There obviously needs to be a careful balance here as it is important for children to hold their parents in high regard yet there is a need for honesty. Telling a child that nothing is going to happen, and the parent is not going to have to go away for a while is not advisable since it may not be true. If the parent does have to serve some time, in the eyes of the child he is not only a criminal but a liar as well. A better approach is to tell them that hopefully everything will be fine and just because someone is arrested does not necessarily mean that prison is in the future. It is obviously important to remind the children that you love them unconditionally and that no matter what happens that will not change.

Things get a little more complicated when a plea has been agreed upon. A child's reaction, especially a child who has already learned the basic legal concept of innocent until proven guilty, will be so confused as to why a plea is being taken instead of going to trial where the government will have to prove guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt". As I have discussed in previous blogs, when contemplating a plea, issues such a guilt or innocence are essentially irrelevant. This is the approach a parent has to keep in mind when explaining why a plea is being taken. If the child is old enough, he has had time to mentally adjust to the new reality and has at least contemplated the notion of a parent being gone for some time. Rather, than focus on the issue of guilt and innocence, it is better to reorient the conversation by focusing on what is best for the family. A child needs to understand, that this is what is best because in the even the parent does go to trial, there is a chance he will be found guilty and will have to spend more time in prison that he will by taking a plea. My taking a plea, a parent is doing what is best for the family because while he will be absent for some time in the near future, this is a temporary situation. Essentially, a parent is telling the child that "I want to make sure I am there to watch you grow up, and I am not going to risk missing that for anything even if it means I have to leave the family for a little while".  This approach accomplishes three goal. Firstly, it avoids exposing the children to the anxiety of a trial, secondly it provides a measure of closure for the children, and lastly and quite possibly most critically, it shows the children that you love them and that your decisions are being made because you care about them.

When a parent contemplates the types of conversations he will have with children of his lifetime, issues surrounding incarceration probably do not make the list. What makes it even more complicated is that a parent has to ensure his children are not neglected. At the same time, once the children do know what is going on, that they feel comfortable enough to talk to the parents with any fears they may have. Every child is different and there really is no magic formula. For some children, the knowledge that their parents are willing to listen to their concerns at any time, is comfort enough. For others, there may be a need to enlist an outside professional. My wife and I did not seek outside professional help and looking back, I think that was the right decision. Once I was indicted, we kept the children appraised of the major developments with the oldest knowing a lot while the youngest knew relatively nothing. As with any other issues a parent faces when raising children, what is said is just as important as what is not said.

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