When we talk about crime, we usually focus on either the perpetrator or the victim; the perpetrator’s family and community are rarely discussed. But when a parent is sent to prison, it has consequences for their children.
In a recent report from Child Trends, my colleagues and I found that there are five million children in the United States who have had a parent that they lived with go to jail or prison—more than the total number of children in the entire state of New York. And the burden is not evenly divided. Those who are poor, black, and/or live in rural areas are more likely to see a parent imprisoned. Nearly 12 percent of black children have had a residential parent go to jail.
That experience has consequences. We found that children who have had an incarcerated parent are more likely to repeat grades or have a parent called in to talk about problems in school, and parents reported lower school engagement. Troublingly, the experience was also associated with other potentially traumatic experiences, such as frequent economic hardship, parental divorce, and living with someone who had a substance abuse problem. While it is not clear whether these problems are directly caused by parental incarceration, it is evident that these children need special attention and help.
The first places to help these children are their schools. Children with an incarcerated parent may need extra support, and schools can make efforts to identify such children and monitor their progress—although they should be careful not to further stigmatize them in the process. Schools can also provide counseling services and develop other programs to address the unique needs of this group.
Additionally, we help these children by addressing the way that we incarcerate parents. We can promote policies that make it easier and more affordable for incarcerated parents to stay in touch with their children. Prisoners are often housed far away from their families, making in-person visits costly and difficult to schedule. Even phone calls can be prohibitively expensive for prisoners and families alike. Providing local access to video conferencing technology is one option; simply reducing the rates for calls to family is another. Encouraging the continuation of positive family ties should be seen as an essential part of preparing incarcerated parents for success in their communities once they’re released.
In-person visits can also be traumatizing for kids. A visit is a visceral reminder of the parent’s situation, and can be potentially upsetting. However, there have been promising early results from programs that make visits more child-friendly. Waiting rooms with toys, streamlined security, and friendly meeting rooms may make the surroundings less intimidating and lighten the experience of meeting the parent.
We can also help parent prisoners make the most of the contact they have. One researcher has recommended five types of programs to serve incarcerated parents: education in parental skills, programs that provide extended special visits for children, child-friendly facilities for visits, parenting support groups, and custody services to aid with divorce proceedings and child support modifications. Most current programs fall into the first category, but there is little research on the most effective programs for this population. Creating more such programs, and studying their effects, should be a high priority. In fact, the Department of Health and Human Services is currently funding such efforts in Washington State.
Of course, the most effective strategy is prevention. Finding alternative punishments for low-level offenders, so they can stay with their families and in their communities, may be the best thing for their children. Maybe if we consider the children that will be left behind, we can make better decisions about when—and if—to send a parent to prison.
Mae Cooper, Senior Research Assistant