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Children of inmates: what happens to these unintended victims?

Every day, adults are arrested or sentenced to serve time in jail or prison. The nation's incarcerated population exceeded 2 million people this past year, the highest ever. As more parents are incarcerated, more children are suffering as well. Rarely, however, do people stop to consider the impact incarceration has on the children in the community. This suffering has been hidden from view. But when President Bush, in three State of the Union addresses, called for volunteers to mentor children with parents in prison, he put a spotlight on this group. In fact, this population of children has grown at a rate that stuns most people, including many professionals in both the criminal justice and human services fields. It is now estimated that 7 million children, or 10 percent of the population under the age of 18, have a parent under some form of correctional supervision. These children are in every community, every school and every church. Their stories and their survival are important to all professionals and communities.


Why Should Society Care?

When society supports the relationship between incarcerated parents and their children, everyone benefits. (1) First, it is good for children. The involvement and attention of the incarcerated parent results in healthy infants. (2) Also, strong family relationships have positive outcomes on rates of delinquency for children of incarcerated parents. (3) In addition, effects of parental criminality are mediated by parental attachment, (4) and frequent contact with children while incarcerated facilitates future reunification. (5)

Supporting the relationship between an inmate and a child is also good for inmates and the community. Male inmates who maintain strong family ties have much better post-release success, and for those who resume responsible husband and parenting roles, there are higher rates of success. (6) And inmates who maintained frequent outside contacts while in prison did significantly better on parole. (7) Also, family relationships are a key indicator of success for females (8) and relapse prevention. (9)

Finally, supporting this relationship is good for the institutions. Anecdotal evidence shows there are few or no infractions by inmates who participate in parenting programs followed by special family visiting programs. Contact with their children is too important to inmates. Research suggests that viewing the family as a prime treatment agent and family contacts as a major correctional technique has several advantages. Family contact has been shown to relate directly to success on parole. Family visits are high inmate motivators; they are free and do not require the same degree of staff training as other treatment approaches. (10) Also, family ties and frequent visitations are associated with lower recidivism. (11)

The Children's Stories

There are many stories on how children of inmates have survived the incarceration of a parent. For example, take a 23-year-old who became a Rhodes scholar from Yale University; or a 10-year-old girl who has lived with her grandmother and learned to understand her mother's cycle of incarceration and addiction; or a 27-year-old college graduate who has been nurtured by her father from behind bars since the age of six; or one child who has been reunited with her incarcerated mother and together they have found success and stability. Each of these children has a different story to tell. However, all of them tell one important story: The hardest part was the shame and stigma they felt from their community for something that was not their fault.

What Happens to the Children?

While research is limited in this area, early indications from preliminary studies (12) have suggested that children of incarcerated parents are three to six times more likely to exhibit violent or serious delinquent behavior. And 40 percent to 75 percent of youths who are arrested for delinquent behavior and/or have "conduct disorder" are arrested in adulthood. The extent to which a child will be affected by the incarceration of a parent depends on a number of variables. Given these variations, some common results are known about how children will suffer without appropriate support: (13)

* Self image -- Identification with incarcerated parent, awareness of social stigma and low self-esteem;

* Cognitive -- Intrusive thoughts about parents, concern about the future and uncertain futures, fatalism and flashbacks to traumatic events;

* Emotional -- Fear, anxiety, anger, sadness, loneliness, abandonment, embarrassment, guilt, resentment and emotional withdrawal from friends and family;

* Mental health -- Depression, eating and sleeping disorders, anxiety and hyperarousal, attention disorders and developmental regression;

* Behavioral -- Physical aggression, acting out inappropriately and disruptive behavior;

* Educational -- Diminished academic performance, classroom behavior difficulties, truancy; and

* Involvement -- In the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

In addition to reducing the stigma children experience, the two major determinants of a child's emotional stability during a parent's incarceration are the quality of care provided by the alternate caregiver and the opportunities to maintain contact with the incarcerated parent.

Programs That Help

The Child Welfare League of America operates the Federal Resource Center for Children of Prisoners in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections. The resource center, located in Washington, D.C., conducts research and evaluations, collects and disseminates information, provides training and technical assistance, and increases awareness among the many disciplines and service systems that come in contact with families separated by incarceration. The goal is to improve the quality of information available about children of incarcerated parents and to develop resources that will help create better outcomes for these children and their families.

There are many programs that provide direct services to families. Family Matters, a program of the Centers for Youth and Families in Little Rock, Ark., serves a target population of children from birth to 18 years of age whose mothers are incarcerated. The program provides enhanced visitation programs, support services and parenting programs for the incarcerated mothers. The Osborne Association in Brooklyn, N.Y., provides youth and family services, including parenting education and counseling. Girl Scouts Beyond Bars in Baltimore has incarcerated mothers and their daughters participating together in traditional Girl Scout activities. The program provides transportation to the prisons where Girl Scout meetings are held, and the program has been replicated in 23 states. Community Works in Berkeley, Calif., is a project that provides case management and an after-school program. And Saint Rose Residence in Milwaukee provides family reunification services for inmates and their children. These services include facilitated visits and foster parent training.

Some children of inmates are at great risk; others have been protected from the most damaging aspects of their circumstances. The degree to which a child is impacted by parental incarceration depends on a number of different variables that include: the age at which the parent-child separation occurs; the length of the separation; the health of the family; changes in living circumstances; the child's familiarity with the new caregiver; how strong is the parent-child relationship; the previous separations; the nature of the parent's crime; the length of sentence; the availability of family or community support; and the degree of stigma that the community associates with incarceration. Approaches to lessen the trauma of parental incarceration include: creating family-friendly policies and practices; encouraging parent/child relationships; reducing stigma by not blaming the child; and supporting families and caregivers.

For more information, please see the following references:

Directory of Programs Serving Families of Adult Offenders, 2001,

Families and Corrections Network contains a library with fact sheets about families and children impacted by incarceration at

Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents contains resources related to children and families impacted by incarceration at


(1) Adapted from the Child Welfare League of America's training curriculum module Four children of Incarcerated Parents: Child and Family Supportive Programming.

(2) Spitz, R.A. 1946. Hospitalism: A follow-up report. In The psychoanalytic study of the child (Vol. II), ed. R.S. Eissler. New York: International Universities Press.

(3) Tolan, P.H., N.G. Guerra and P. Kendall. 1995. A developmental-ecological perspective on antisocial behavior in children and adolescents: Toward a unified risk and intervention framework. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 63:579-584.

(4) Larzelere, R.E. and G.R. Patterson. 1990. Parental management: Mediator of the effect of socioeconomic status on early delinquency. Criminology, 28(2):301-323.

(5) Martin, M. 1997. Connected mothers: A follow-up study of incarcerated women and their children. Women and Criminal Justice, 8(4):1-323.

(6) Hairston, C.F. 1991. Family ties during imprisonment: Important to whom and for what? Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 18:87-103.

Hairston, C.F. 1998. The forgotten parent: Understanding the forces that influence incarcerated fathers' relationships with their children. Child Welfare, 77(5):617-638.

(7) Holt, N. and D. Miller. 1972. Explorations in inmate-family relationships, research division, California Department of Corrections, Sacramento, Calif.

(8) Dowden, C. and D.A. Andrews. 1999. What works for female offenders: A meta-analytic review. Crime and Delinquency, 45(4):438-452.

(9) Slaght, E. 1999. Family and offender treatment focusing on the family in the treatment of substance abusing criminal offenders. Journal of Drug Education, 19(1):53-62.

(10) Holt, N. and D. Miller. 1972.

(11) Block, K.J. and M.J. Potthast. 1998. Girl scouts behind bars: Facilitating parent-child contact in correctional settings. Child Welfare, 77(5):561-578.

(12) Eddy, M. and J. Reid. 2002. Adolescent children of incarcerated parents. Papers prepared for the From Prison to Home Conference, 30-31 January.

(13) Seymour, C.B. and L. Wright. 2000. Working with children and families separated by incarceration: A handbook for child welfare agents. Washington, D.C: CWLA Press.


* The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that 2.3 children are affected by the 1.1 million parents incarcerated in prisons or jails, up from 500,000 children in 1991.

* More than 7 million children have a parent under some form of correctional supervision.

* More than 2 million people are currently incarcerated in the nation's prisons and jails.

* At midyear 2002, one in every 142 U.S. residents was incarcerated.

* At midyear 2002, one in every 32 U.S. residents was under some form of correctional supervision.

* Approximately 75 percent of incarcerated women are mothers and two-thirds have children under age 18.

* Seventy-two percent of female inmates with children under age 18 lived with those children before entering prison.

* Six percent of women entering prison are pregnant.

* From 1990 to 2000, the number of mothers in prison grew 87 percent, while fathers increased by 61 percent.

* Fifty-four percent of mothers in state prison said they never had visits from their children.

* Approximately 55 percent of incarcerated men are fathers of children under the age of 18.

* Thirty-two percent of men in prison have two or more children under the age of 18.

* On any given day, there are approximately 1 million fathers behind bars.

* Fifty-seven percent of fathers in state prison report never having visits from their children.

Arlene F. Lee is director of the Federal Resource Center for Children of Prisoners in Washington, D.C.
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Title Annotation:impact of incarceration on prisoners' children in the community
Author:Lee, Arlene F.
Publication:Corrections Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2005
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