Gain insight into the problems children face when a parent goes to prison.
To help family ministry volunteers, we've prepared a list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about the children of prisoners.
- How many children in the U.S. have a parent that is incarcerated?
- Do children always know their parent is in prison?
- What are some feelings children experience when a parent is incarcerated?
- Do children react differently to their parent's incarceration?
- What is the effect of social stigma on a child of an incarcerated parent?
- Does having an incarcerated parent mean a child will eventually go to prison?
- Who do most incarcerated parents rely on to take care of their children?
- How often do children visit their incarcerated parents?
- What are some obstacles that hamper visiting opportunities?
- Should all children ultimately be reunited with their parents?
1) HOW MANY CHILDREN IN THE U.S. HAVE A PARENT THAT IS INCARCERATED?
In America, 1.5 million children (1 in 28) currently have a parent in prison. (Western) In 2015 more than 5 million children (7 percent of all U.S. children) had experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives. (Murphey) Researchers believe these numbers are very low due to the social stigma that makes families reluctant to report parental incarceration.
2) DO CHILDREN ALWAYS KNOW THEIR PARENT IS IN PRISON?
No. A study revealed that "a quarter of female prisoners' children did not know that their mothers were in prison." But most experts agree this is unhealthy for children and they need to be told the truth. (La Vigne)
Children are sometimes told their parents are out of town attending college or helping other family members who are ill. Sometimes the caregiver simply tells them they are the parent, not even acknowledging who their real parent truly is. (De Masi)
While someone might not tell a child because they want to protect them, in the end it causes the child more confusion and leads the child to believe that being in prison is "so shameful that their caregivers were unwilling, unable, or too humiliated to reveal it." (De Masi) Protecting a child from the truth may cause worry, uncertainty, fear, and distrust. Children may wonder if they too will mysteriously disappear. (La Vigne)
Children between the ages of 2-6 can feel separation anxiety, traumatic stress and even survivor's guilt. (Travis) Children between the ages of 7-10 may experience developmental regressions, poor self-concept, acute traumatic stress reactions, and impaired ability to overcome future trauma. (Travis) Children from ages 11-14 may experience rejection on limits of behavior and trauma-reactive behaviors. (Travis) Children from the ages of 15-18 may experience a premature termination of dependency relationship with parent, which may lead them to intergenerational crime and incarceration. (Travis)
4) DO CHILDREN REACT DIFFERENTLY TO THEIR PARENT'S INCARCERATION?
Yes. Younger children tend to experience "disorganized feelings and behaviors upon their parent's incarceration and older children displaying more antisocial behavior, conduct disorders, and signs of depression." (La Vigne)
While traditionally it has been believed that males suffered more intensely from a parent being put behind bars, some research has shown that males and females just have different reactions to a parent's incarceration, "with boys of fathers behind bars displaying more delinquency and aggression and girls exhibiting more internalizing behaviors and attention problems."
Most children experience embarrassment when their parent goes to jail. Some children also assume they are at fault or have done something that led to their parent's incarceration, even when there was nothing they could do to prevent their parent from going to jail. (De Masi)
Children with a parent in jail or prison are teased more often at school and "may internalize the stigma and experience lower self-esteem, especially if they identify with the incarcerated parent…Others may react with anger, defiance, and a desire for retaliation against those who reject and taunt them." (La Vigne)
6) DOES HAVING AN INCARCERATED PARENT MEAN A CHILD WILL EVENTUALLY GO TO PRISON?
There is controversy concerning this issue. Ann Adalist-Estrin, Director of the National Resource Center of Children and Families of the Incarcerated in Philadelphia, PA, says: "Without adequate research we cannot say they are more likely to go to prison or jail."
According to a study conducted by Central Connecticut State University, children of the incarcerated are about three times as likely as other children to be justice-involved. (Conway)
Eighty-eight percent of incarcerated fathers rely on the mother of the children to provide daily care and two percent rely on foster care. Thirty-seven percent of incarcerated mothers rely on the father to provide primary care, 45 percent rely on the children's grandparents, 23 percent rely on other friends and relatives, and 11 percent rely on foster care. (Hairston)
Sadly, "one in four children living with a grandmother lives in poverty, and a third do not have health insurance, while two-thirds of caregivers of children with incarcerated mothers reported not having the financial support needed to meet the necessary expenses for the child."(La Vigne)
8) HOW OFTEN DO CHILDREN VISIT THEIR INCARCERATED PARENTS?
"Seventy percent of parents in state prison reported exchanging letters with their children, 53 percent had spoken with their children over the telephone, and 42 percent had a personal visit since admission. Mothers were more likely than fathers to report having had any contact with their children…In federal prison, 85 percent reported telephone contact, 84 percent had exchanged letters, and 55 percent reported having had personal visits." (Glaze)
Children who continue to stay in touch with their parent in prison exhibit fewer disruptive and anxious behaviors. There is also evidence that it helps the parents as well by lowering recidivism rates and making reunification easier and more likely once the parent is released from prison. (La Vigne)
Families usually are strained for money, so it is a huge sacrifice for them to even decide to go and visit a loved one. Plus there is always a chance the prisoner could have been moved. As a security precaution, family members are not usually informed of a prisoner's transfer until after the move is completed. (De Masi)
Visiting procedures vary, but many jails and prisons require visitors to be separated from the prisoner by a thick glass window, which means they have to talk to each other using telephones. Also many visitors must undergo frisk and search procedures before entering the visitation area. Crowded visiting rooms and long wait times are common. These conditions often deter family members from wanting to visit their incarcerated loved one. (Hairston)
There are many situations where it is safer for a child not to be reunited with their incarcerated parent once that parent is released. If there is a history of child abuse, for example, the courts may not allow the parent to have contact with the child in the future.
Children are sometimes concerned about bonding with their parents again because they don't see their parents as "reliable" or "dependable." Often children have a different expectation of how their parents will behave than how the parents carry out their role upon reunification. (De Masi)
Parents really had to earn their child's respect upon reunification. They had to prove to their children that they had changed. "Many parents acknowledged that the time spent in prison helped them rectify many of the issues that brought them there and used their time for self-improvement." But others did not. Some parents continued to go in and out of prison, which made the prospect of long-term reunification nearly impossible. (De Masi)
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