Five Million U.S. Children Have Had a Parent Incarcerated

October 26, 2015 

New report reveals who these children are and the challenges they face

Bethesda, Md.—An estimated five million U.S. children have had at least one parent imprisoned—representing 1 in every 14 children under the age of 18—according to a report released by Child Trends today. The vast majority of parents in prison are fathers.

The report, Parents Behind Bars: What Happens to Their Children?, reveals that 1 in 9 black children have experienced parental incarceration, and children who are living in poverty are more than three times more likely to have a parent in prison than those from higher-income families. Children living in rural areas are also more likely than those in metropolitan areas to have had an incarcerated parent.

“Certainly if a parent poses a danger to the child, parental incarceration can have positive effects,” said David Murphey, a senior research scientist at Child Trends and co-author of the report. “However, most research finds negative outcomes for these children, such as childhood health and behavioral problems and grade retention. Children who grow up with a parent in prison are also more likely to suffer from poor mental and physical health in adulthood. “

Child Trends estimated the number of children who currently have an incarcerated parent as well as those living with a parent who had been incarcerated at some time in the child’s life. After accounting for effects associated with demographic characteristics such as income and race, Child Trends found that parental incarceration was associated with:

  • the child’s having experienced a greater number of other major, potentially traumatic life events—stressors that are most damaging when they are cumulative;
  • among children 6 to 11, more emotional difficulties, low school engagement, and more problems in school; and
  • among youth 12 to 17, a greater likelihood of problems in school, and less parental monitoring.

What else do these children experience?

Parental incarceration is among several major, potentially traumatic events known as “adverse childhood experiences,” which also include witnessing domestic violence, having parents who are divorced, and others.

Child Trends found that on average, children who had had an incarcerated parent had experienced about two more adverse experiences, not including the experience of parental incarceration, than their peers. Among these children:

  • more than half had lived with a person with substance abuse problem, compared with 1 in 14 of their peers;
  • more than half had experienced parental divorce or separation, compared with 1 in 6 of their peers;
  • more than 1 in 3 had witnessed domestic violence in their homes, compared with 1 in 20 of their peers;
  • nearly 1 in 3 had seen or experienced neighborhood violence, compared with fewer than 1 in 10 of their peers;
  • more than 1 in 4 had lived with a person who was mentally ill or suicidal, compared with 1 in 14 of their peers; and
  • nearly 1 in 10 had experienced death of a parent, compared with 1 in every 38 of their peers.

 What can be done?

The report highlights the importance of families, schools, and communities in providing greater support to children who experience parental incarceration. Child Trends noted specific ways to support children with a parent in prison:

  • Reduce the stigma associated with having a parent in prison. Lack of support from teachers and peers could account for their lower school engagement, for example.
  • Improve communications between children and their incarcerated parents. In-person visits are rare, and even mail and phone contact are infrequent.
  • Make prison visits less stressful or traumatizing for children. Studies find positive results for child-friendly visiting areas and policies (such as relaxed security procedures for children).

Incarceration rates in the United States are higher than those of any other reporting country, including Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Australia, and others.

Child Trends used data from the 2011-12 National Survey of Children’s Health—a phone survey where a parent or other knowledgeable adult answers questions about a child in their household. The survey is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Child Trends’ study was funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.


About Child Trends

Child Trends is the nation’s leading research organization focused exclusively on improving the lives and prospects of children, youth, and their families. For 36 years, decision makers have relied on our rigorous research, unbiased analyses, and clear communications to improve public policies and interventions that serve children and families. We have more than 120 staff in three offices and multiple locations around the country, including our headquarters in Bethesda, Md.