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  • More than five million American children have experienced the incarceration of a parent at some point. Tweet This
  • Young children with an incarcerated parent show more emotional problems and lower school engagement. Tweet This

Stephanie was eight years old when her heroin-addicted father was sent to prison for armed robbery. When she attempted to give her dad a hug during her first visit to the prison where he was being held, an armed guard immediately chastised her, snatching him away to another room, where she was only able to speak to him by phone through a glass window. In a video released by the Children of Incarcerated Parents Initiative, she says she never questioned why her father was serving time, explaining that, “all I knew is that my father didn’t care about me because he needed drugs.” Today, Stephanie sees her father, who’s been out of prison for several years, occasionally. Still, she admits tearfully, “Even to this day, I don’t know my father.”

Shared Sentence, a new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF), estimates that over five million children, or 7 percent of all children nationwide, have experienced the incarceration of a parent at some point during their childhood. The number of American kids with an imprisoned father has increased substantially over the years—by 500 percent between 1980 and 2000. While the overwhelming majority (92 percent) of parents behind bars are fathers, more mothers are serving time, too. The number of children with mothers in prison more than doubled between 1991 and 2007.

Not all families are equally likely to experience parental incarceration. The report shows that the percentage of children with an incarcerated parent varies widely by state, ranging from only 3 percent in New Jersey to as high as 13 percent in Kentucky. And children from minority communities are more likely to lose a parent to incarceration. African American children are over seven times as likely and Latino children are two times as likely to have a parent behind bars as their white peers. Kids with incarcerated parents also tend to be younger than age 10, and most live with their single moms in communities with high poverty rates. They face an elevated risk of experiencing homelessness as well, with family income dropping by an average of 22 percent when dad goes to jail.

“Incarceration breaks up families, the building blocks of our communities and nation,” the AECF report states. “It creates an unstable environment for kids that can have lasting effects on their development and well-being.” The effects of parental incarceration are so strong, the report points out, that they equal abuse, domestic violence, or divorce in terms of the impact on children.

Child Trends report offers additional details about the lives of children with incarcerated parents, finding that they are more likely than other children to have experienced adverse childhood experiences. These experiences include having lived with someone with a substance abuse problem; experienced parental divorce or separation; witnessed domestic violence; lived with a mentally ill or suicidal person; and experienced the death of a parent.

According to Child Trends, a vast body of earlier research has found that children with incarcerated parents are more apt to suffer a variety of emotional and physical health problems in childhood as adulthood. Even after controlling for demographic variables, such as race and income, as well as some adverse childhood experiences, young children with an incarcerated parent still experience more emotional problems and lower school engagement than their peers, and older children experience more problems in school and receive less parental monitoring. The findings led the researchers to conclude that “even among children who face multiple difficult circumstances, having a parent imprisoned conveys added risk.”

In light of the myriad of harmful outcomes for children, the AECF report offers a number of recommendations aimed at building more community support for the children of imprisoned parents and their families during and after parental incarceration. For instance, it encourages judges to consider proximity to families when making prison placement decisions, so that children have a better chance of being able to visit their incarcerated parent. It also urges community-based organizations to offer mentoring programs, counseling, and support groups for the children, teens, and families of imprisoned parents.

Importantly, the report also acknowledges the key role that family support plays in helping imprisoned parents to rebuild their lives, and in helping children cope with their parent’s absence. To this end, it calls for prison- and community-based efforts to strengthen family relationships, including more open family visitation for parents in prison, and counseling and parenting education programs for prisoners and their families.

It specifically mentions the National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI) program InsideOutDad, which “helps incarcerated fathers connect with their families and build parenting skills,” and has been implemented in 25 state correctional facilities. In addition to increasing dads’ confidence, parenting knowledge, and interaction with their sons and daughters, it has helped reduce recidivism rates. “Fathers who are involved with, and connected with their children and families prior to release are less likely to return to jail or prison,” an NFI brief notes, citing research that shows that only 24 percent of fathers who attended the responsible fatherhood program returned to prison following their release, versus 38 percent who did not receive the program.

Parenting and relationship education programs are critical for imprisoned fathers, the NFI argues, because incarceration is one of the leading causes of fatherlessness in our nation. Incarcerated dads are more likely to come from fatherless homes themselves, so they lack the skills and role models to be responsible dads for the long haul. Compounding the problem is that youth raised without fathers, and especially with a parent behind bars, are more likely to end up in prison themselves, creating a vicious cycle of father absence and incarceration for generations of men. Helping men become better fathers is key to breaking this cycle.

Strengthening family connections can give moms and dads behind bars much-needed hope, the incentive to try to make changes, and the courage to seek the tools they need rebuild their lives. However, it would be unwise to ignore the crimes that put these parents in prison in the first place. For example, one 2008 Bureau of Justice Statistics study found that most fathers are in prison for drug-related offenses, followed by violent crimes. A majority report substance abuse or addiction problems, and many have mental health issues. While having a parent in prison certainly compounds the suffering of children, even prior to their parent’s imprisonment, many of them already experience unstable family environments that put them at a higher risk for negative life outcomes. The issues facing children of incarcerated parents, such as fragmented families struggling with poverty and drug addiction, are more complex than simply losing a parent to jail—a fact we need to keep in mind if we are to help them achieve a healthy future.