Children of Incarcerated Parents Emily Sanders Rachel Dunifon

Emily Sanders
Rachel Dunifon
Children of Incarcerated Parents
The goal of this research brief is to identify
recent trends in, and some difficulties
resulting from, parental incarceration. Many
men and women who enter prison leave
behind children who face difficult living
situations and are at high risk for
developmental and behavioral problems.
This brief aims to present the most recent
information on the children, parents, and
caregivers who are affected by incarceration,
provide an overview of their circumstances,
and summarize the current research
surrounding the effects of maintaining
family connections during a parent’s
incarceration. The brief concludes with a
proposal of policy recommendations and
areas that are in need of further research.
Recent Trends
As the U.S. prison population has multiplied
over the last two decades, the number of parents
in state or federal prison has increased as well.
Over 53% of current prisoners are
parents (Bureau of Justice Statistics,
An estimated 1,706,600 children have a
parent in prison (2.3% of U.S.
population under the age of 18; Bureau
of Justice Statistics, 2007)
More than 70% of children with
incarcerated parents are children of
color (Schirmer, Nellis, and Mauer,
Incarceration increased 122% for
mothers and 76% for fathers from 19912007 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2007)
On average, mothers have sentences five
years shorter than those of fathers
(Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2007)
75% of children with an incarcerated
mother have a father who also has had
criminal involvement (Bureau of Justice
Statistics, 2007)
Caregiving Arrangements for
Children of Incarcerated Parents
While mothers are usually the primary
caregivers for children when a father is
incarcerated, only a small percentage of fathers
provide primary childcare when a mother is in
prison. Therefore, the incarceration of a mother
usually causes great disruption in children’s dayto-day lives.
Many children with incarcerated mothers are
cared for by a grandparent or other relative (in
1 what is referred to as kinship care). In many
cases, this relative served as a caregiver even
before the parent was incarcerated. Mothers
most often name the maternal grandmother of
their children to be the primary caregiver during
their incarceration. Thus, for children with
incarcerated parents, kinship care may be
preferable to foster care in that such care entails
a familiar caregiver and environment as well as
the opportunity to maintain family linkages. One
study suggests that kinship care reduces the
developmental and behavioral problems often
associated with parental incarceration (Hanlon et
al, 2007).
Despite the benefits noted above, grandparents
face challenges when serving as full-time
caregivers, including:
Financial challenges in providing for
additional household members
Poor health and decreased energy
Parenting difficulties and stress
Mixed emotions (guilt, anger, shame,
etc) about their biological child who is
These challenges are heightened by the fact that
children with incarcerated parents often come
from difficult home environments, and often
have special developmental or behavioral needs.
Risk Factors for Children of
Incarcerated Parents
Children with incarcerated parents face several
risk factors, many of which may not be due to
the incarceration itself, but rather the
circumstances (poverty, exposure to violence
and drugs, and the like) surrounding it. Children
with incarcerated parents are at increased risk
for abuse of drugs and alcohol, engaging in
antisocial behavior, dropping out of school or
experiencing a decline in school work as well as
having high levels of truancy, aggression, and
disruptive behaviors, compared to other children
(Snyder, 2001).
The majority of families affected by parental
incarceration experienced poor economic
conditions even before the loss of the parent’s
income upon incarceration. Many parents were
on public assistance at the time of their offense
and more than half of parents in state prisons
had personal incomes of less than $1,000 per
month before their arrest (Bureau of Justice
Statistics, 2007). Still, after the incarceration of
a parent, a child and his or her caregiver lose a
major source of economic stability and may face
severe financial difficulties.
Children of incarcerated parents are also likely
to be exposed to parental drug and alcohol abuse
as well inadequate parenting, prior to the
parental arrest. It is estimated that close to half
a million parents in prison have a drug or
alcohol problem and sixty percent of state
inmates reported using drugs the month before
their arrest (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2007).
Additionally, over 70% of mothers in prison
report having sought out mental health treatment
or counseling, a much higher percentage than
the general population. These risk factors may
contribute to an unhealthy home environment
for children whose parents later are incarcerated.
In addition to these factors that may have predated a parent’s incarceration, the incarceration
itself can be very challenging for children.
Numerous studies have described the behaviors
children exhibit following the incarceration of
their parent, including crying and sadness,
confusion and worry, anger, acting out
(including aggression, drop in school-work,
delinquent activities, drug use, sexual
promiscuity, and the like) and developmental
regression (such as wetting the bed). A study
that was conducted on youth with incarcerated
2 mothers reported that 75% of the children had
symptoms characterized as trauma-related stress.
These reactions included trouble sleeping,
concentrating, and signs of depression
(Kampfner, 1995). Youth can may also blame
themselves for their parent’s criminal behaviors,
especially if their parent has been prosecuted for
stealing or selling drugs for the benefit of the
family (Miller, 2006). It is important for
caregiver to assure the child that this is not the
case. If this belief goes undisputed, the children
may suffer from long-term psychological
While the exact cause of these behaviors is not
completely understood, prolonged separation
from a parent who has previously cared for the
child is stressful. Current research emphasizes
the need for emotional and developmental
support following parental imprisonment
(Poehlmann, 2008).
In addition, there is a stigma associated with
contact with the criminal justice system. The
community and child’s peers may associate him
or her with the imprisoned parent. This stigma
can contribute to the depression and negative
self-image often found in children with an
incarcerated parent.
Contact With Incarcerated Parents
Some of the challenges related to parental
incarceration may be addressed by programs
promoting high quality contact between children
and their incarcerated parent. Several studies
show the positive results of maintaining contact
between the incarcerated parents, their children
and the children’s caregiver (Poehlmann et al
2010). For the child, visiting and
communicating with his or her parent can:
Decrease the feelings of loss of
Help dissolve fears or fantasies about
prison by seeing it first hand
Encourage discussion of the current
situation, thereby addressing issues that
could lead to shame or fear
Since many parents are imprisoned for drug and
other non-violent crimes, relatively short
sentences are common and parents often plan to
re-enter their child’s life upon release. For this
reason, when possible, it is important that the
parent remain in contact with their child while in
prison in order to maintain and/or improve the
already established relationship.
For the incarcerated parent, in-prison parenting
programs and other visitation interventions are
shown to be correlated with lower rates of
recidivism, increased self-esteem, and more
parental involvement with their children
following release (Carlson 1998, Hauck & Loper
2002, LaVigne, Naser, Brooks, & Castro 2005).
However, caution should be exercised when
promoting contact between children and their
incarcerated parents, as some studies report
negative results from parent-child visitation in
prison (Dallaire, Wilson, & Ciccone, 2009;
Dallaire, Wilson, & Ciccone 2010; Poehlmann,
2005; Shlafer & Poehlmann 2010). These
findings could be a result of the poor quality of
the interaction during a visit and highlights the
fact that more research is necessary to determine
what makes a visit of high value, the key
components in a child-friendly environment, and
the direct effects of quality visitation.
The quality of the parent-child contact during
visitation is likely very important in influencing
the reactions of both the parent and child. In a
study by Landreth and Lobaugh (1998), an
increase in children’s self esteem was shown
following a 10-week intervention in which the
children could physically interact with their
3 incarcerated fathers in a child-friendly
Such programs may benefit parents as well. A
study by Carlson (1998) found that recidivism
was lower for mothers that participated in a
prison nursery program compared to those that
didn’t. Prison nursery programs are designed
for non-violent inmates who will give birth
while incarcerated but be released within 24
months or less after birth. As of 2008, only 9
states had prison nursery programs and data on
such programs is scarce (Carlson, 2008). More
research exploring the effects of visitation
context, parenting programs, and child contact
on the rates of recidivism are needed.
Problems Maintaining Contact With
Incarcerated Parent
Despite studies showing some positive effects of
maintaining familial contact during
incarceration, many barriers prevent families
from remaining in contact while a parent is
behind bars. Over 60% of state and 80% of
federal inmates are more than 100 miles from
home (The Sentencing Project, 2009).
Caregivers may lack the time and means to
travel these long distances with children on a
consistent basis. Gas for travel and expensive,
long-distance phone calls limit the
communication families can have with their
incarcerated family member. For example,
studies estimated that family members of
prisoners in a Bronx neighborhood spent about
15% of their monthly incomes to maintain
contact with their incarcerated family member
(Christian, 2005; Christian, Mellow, & Thomas,
2006). Visiting regulations and policies vary
among prisons, and visitors may have to
conform to strict codes, hours, and
uncomfortable conditions that make it difficult
for parents to interact and play with their
children normally.
In addition to these barriers, lack of visitation
and contact can be a result of the caregiver’s
decisions. A caregiver may be unwilling to
bring the children to the prison because they
believe the parent is a bad influence on the child,
they do not want to traumatize the child by
exposing them to prison life, or they may have a
poor relationship with the parent in prison.
Incarcerated parents may also object to their
children visiting because they view it as too
emotionally painful. In some cases, parents
might believe their short sentence makes visiting
unnecessary or they cannot be an affective
parent while they are in prison (Poehlmann et al
Areas of Further Research
Much remains unknown regarding the influence
of parental imprisonment on children and how
such challenges can best be addressed. More
research is needed comparing children with
incarcerated parents to children in similar
economic and social conditions who do not have
a parent in prison in order to determine whether
incarceration is simply correlated with
developmental and behavioral problems or if it
is a direct cause. Researchers should also focus
on the effect of different forms and quality of
parent-child contact while a parent is in prison
rather than the frequency of contact. In order to
incorporate more family-style intervention
programs into the prison system, these
interventions should be evaluated and compared
with vigorous, longitudinal research studies.
These studies should not only include the
incarcerated parent, but also child participants
and direct observation of children (Poehlmann
There are many policies and programs that could
make a difference in the lives of those affected
by parental incarceration.
4 Post-Parental Arrest, but Pre-Sentencing
Communication between imprisoned
parent, caregiver, and caseworker
Legal representation for inmates
regarding a child’s care
Increased communication between the
Department of Social Services and the
Department of Corrections
Increased use of alternatives to
incarceration (e.g. house arrest, halfway
house, community service, etc.) for first
time drug offenders and other nonviolent and minor crimes.
During Incarceration
Make visitation areas more child and
family friendly to improve quality of
Resources made available to caregivers
about positive parent-child contact and
preparing the children for a visit with
incarcerated parent
Education for correctional officers on
children of incarcerated parents and
effects of high quality visitation
Eliminate exorbitant telephone calling
Monitored video-conferences to
supplement in-person visitation and
phone calls
More parenting and family intervention
programs for inmates
Group treatment/support groups for
children of incarcerated parents
Specific pre-release, family counseling
program for inmates close to release
Increased financial assistance of
grandparent caregivers who are not in
kincare foster care
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7 Emily Sanders is a senior Human Biology, Health and Society
Major at Cornell University.
Rachel Dunifon is an Associate Professor of Policy Analysis and
Management at Cornell University.
This work was supported by a joint research and extension program funded by Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station (Hatch funds)
and Cornell Cooperative Extension (Smith Lever funds) received from Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service, U.S.
Department of Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publications are those of the author(s) and
do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture
© 2011 Cornell Cooperative Extension