Nancy Rappaport M.D.

We Are Only Human

Alleged Russian Spy Kids: Loyalty And Betrayal

Parental incarceration affects 1.5 million children.

Posted Jul 09, 2010

Prosecutors in an alleged spy ring say they are Russian Citizens living in the U.S. as married couples. Four sets of parents raising seven children in school and college playing soccer, having school friends and carrying on relatively sheltered predictable lives. Now these children face the prospect of life with their parents in prison labeled as Russian spies.

It is unclear in this situation if these parents chose to confide in their children, certainly the stakes were incredibly high, to tell or not to tell. With big secrets, parents can make different decisions depending on the age of the child. In most situations you are talking about adoption, suicides that might have happened in the family, mental illness. So if the child is a school-aged kid, then the parents may decide we are going to hold off because we don't know if the child may blurt it out at recess. Then as the child grows to become a teenager, they may see that their children have more nuanced judgment to figure out who to tell and not to tell. The big burden about big secrets is that often in clinical experience we see that parents will imagine that their child doesn't know what is going on but what we find is that kids are remarkably perspective, they know what is going on.

If we assume that the children have not been told and they discover that their parents' lives are a lie, the impact can depend on what the children find out. If they find out their parents' were serial killers or committing violent crimes, one would anticipate that parents' are not compartmentalizing this. It is a likely possibility that this aggression is invading the home life. If you have alleged espionage activities, that is sort of a white collar crime, it's a day job of sorts and the parents may have been capable. We certainly heard in anecdotal reports of these parents' providing for basic needs for their children, going to their soccer games, reading bed time stories. Children can have much more complicated responses about the discovery of who their parents are in this type of situation. They can feel betrayed and angry about aspects of who their parents are but also have tremendous loyalty. Both the betrayal and the loyalty can make the separation so hard.

It is probable that these children are not being offered much professional help right now. They are in the limelight of the world right now, like deer in the headlights. People who are providing for them are most likely going from moment to moment trying to guide the children through the immediate aftermath of their parents' arrest. And if these children are in any type of crisis counseling, they would most likely be incredibly guarded because they can't rely on who to tell the truth to and what is safe.

I wish that we could capitalize on the public curiosity and interest in the welfare of these children of the alleged Russian spies to highlight the impact of parental incarcerations on children. One in fifty children had a parent in prison and 1.5 million children have incarcerated parents. The children's separation from their parents if they witnessed the arrest can be particularly traumatic. They can be confused about the identities of their parents and who will raise them while their parent is gone. Children often have a change in their living situations and they can be separated from their siblings. Over half of children rarely see their parent in jail either because of geographical long distance or because the remaining caregiver is unwilling to help make the visits happen. Each child may have a different reaction, depending on the strength of their relationship to their parent, the age at which the parent-child separation occurs, the nature of the parent's crime and the length of the separation. Perhaps we are captivated by these recent family upheavals because we can appreciate in a stark way the vulnerability and dependency of these children in a way that the staggering number of children who lose their parents to jail does not galvanize our sympathy or action.

About the Author
Nancy Rappaport is the author of In Her Wake: A Child Psychiatrist Explores the Mystery of Her Mother's Suicide (September 2009, Basic Books). She is assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. She is attending child and adolescent psychiatrist at Harvard Teaching affiliate Cambridge Health Alliance, where she is also Director of School Based-programs with a focus on servicing youths, families and staff in public schools. Please visit her website at www.inherwake.com

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