Children of Incarcerated Parents

                                                                    Matt Koziol   

The United States of America imprisons more individuals than any other country in the world.  While imprisonment undoubtedly has a significant impact on the person who is confined, its effects are not limited to that individual alone.  The majority of prisoners have at least one child.  In the United States, nearly 1.5 million children have a parent in prison and several million have grown up with a parent in prison during some part of their youth.[i] 

In a 1997 study, Focus on Children of Incarcerated Parents, conducted by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, researchers found the percentage of incarcerated parents who had dependants under the age of eighteen was 55 percent in state prisons and 63 percent in federal prisons.  Eighty-six percent of the prisoners’ children were under the age of ten, and 22 percent were under five years of age.  According to the Department of Justice, 2.1 percent of children under the age of eighteen in the entire U.S. have at least one parent who has been incarcerated.  In the year 2000, roughly two million children had incarcerated parents, a figure that has doubled since 1991.   African-American children are nine times more likely than white children to have an incarcerated parent, while Latino children are three times more likely to have an incarcerated parent than white children.

Developmental Challenges

The imprisonment of a parent results in many difficult and harmful situations for children.  Various studies have found that kids are humiliated when having to admit that   a parent is incarcerated. According to Keva M. Miller, a sociologist who has studied the impact of parental incarceration, “Children with incarcerated parents are likely to feel shamed and realize that individuals may reject them because of their parent’s actions.”[ii]  This feeling is not limited to society. Even family and friends often refuse acceptance of the child because of the stigma of the prisoner.  In order to cope with such treatment, children may avoid meaningful relationships and instead seek acceptance in negative associations, such as gangs.[iii]  This could ultimately lead to engagement in criminal behavior and exposure to the criminal justice system.

The psychological development of a child is impacted by parental incarceration.  The Attachment theory is based on the principle that a child develops into a healthy, functioning adult in the context of a continuous relationship with an emotional attachment to a parental figure.[iv]  The child adapts to the parent and a sense of attachment exists between the two, which provides a child with a sense of safety.  When this is broken it makes the child more vulnerable to delinquent behavior.  It is important to remember that a child’s reaction to such a situation highly depends on age.  For instance, children whose parents are incarcerated at critical developmental stages, such as between the ages three and five, will be affected differently than teenagers.  This leads back to the notion that beliefs and morals are instilled at an early age and lack of parental influence alters these crucial thoughts.

Youth with parents in prison experience cognitive delays, developmental regression and inappropriate coping strategies at high rates.[v]  It is challenging for a child to balance the numerous obstacles he or she is faced with on a daily basis, along with the instability of family.  This produces an overload in the brain and is likely to affect forming attachments with others, in particular the development of trust. 

Children are also concerned with harm that may occur while they are separated from their parent.  This is known as separation anxiety.  Such children may have symptoms that include nightmares, confabulation of illness and refusal to go to school.[vi]  Furthermore, the child can become aggressive, rebellious and prone to irresponsible behavior and delinquency. Again, separation anxiety is affected by the age at which a child is split from the parent, as well as the personal bond between the two.

Since parental incarceration can affect a child’s daily functioning, it also impacts behavior in school.  In a study of incarcerated mothers in state and federal prisons, the major problem reported about their children was their behavior and performance in school.  This included poor grades, absenteeism and suspensions for poor conduct.  Other research of African-American children with incarcerated mothers, found that 49 percent were suspended from school, and 10 percent were expelled.[vii] In a book titled, War on the Family, by Renny Golden, the author interviews imprisoned mothers in Illinois’ Dwight Correctional Center who were informed of their child’s conduct in school.  One mother acknowledged that her daughter’s behavior had drastically changed since her imprisonment.  “My daughter has been suspended from school for fighting and telling teachers she’ll kick their ass.  She has an anger problem that she didn’t have until she came to visit me in prison.  When she had to leave, she started to cry.  After that, she was mad all the time.  Now that I can get her to open up to me-she’s getting better.  She’s seven years old.”[viii]  These studies demonstrate the need for parental presence and active engagement in the life of a child.  Poor behavior in an academic setting can be seen as a cry for attention and companionship.

I had the opportunity to meet with a father who was confined in both Stateville and Tamms Correctional Centers for a total of five years.  This individual has four children who visited him regularly while he was in custody.  The children were all between the ages of three and seven when he was sentenced, and upon release the oldest was a teenager.  He told me that the most difficult aspect of going to prison was looking at the disappointment he caused his children.  Missing five years of their lives caused the oldest to get involved in gang life and the two middle children to have behavioral problems in school.  This inmate was under the impression that once he was released all of these issues would go away because the children would have their father back.  He was wrong.  It took quite some time to gain their trust and make his way back into their lives, but their relationship did eventually improve.  He ended our conversation by telling me that he had no idea that his actions would affect so many people negatively.  While imprisoned he was constantly reminded that nothing is worse than leaving your children, knowing that if they need your help you can do absolutely nothing to help them.

The children of incarcerated parents are a very critical population and need an immense amount of support.  The idea that they are five to six times more at risk of involvement with the criminal justice system demonstrates the necessity for new policy intervention.[ix]  It ultimately comes down to children having a psychological need for the presence of their parents.  Although many have caregivers who provide them with adequate support, separation from a parent cannot be replaced.  Children tend to admire their parents.  They trust and want to become like them.  To take this away from a child limits the potential for growth and a successful future.  



[i] Hairston, Creasie F. Focus on Children with Incarcerated Parents. The Annie E. Casey

Foundation, 2007.

[ii] Miller, Keva M. The Impact of Parental Incarceration on Children: An Emerging Need

for Effective Interventions.  Child and Adolescent Social work Journal, Vol. 23, pg. 477, No.4, 2006.

[iii] Miller, Keva M. The Impact of Parental Incarceration on Children: An Emerging Need

for Effective Interventions.  Child and Adolescent Social work Journal, Vol. 23, pg. 478, No.4, 2006.

[iv] Hairston, Creasie F. Focus on Children with Incarcerated Parents. The Annie E. Casey

Foundation, 2007.

[v] Hairston, Creasie F. Focus on Children with Incarcerated Parents. The Annie E. Casey

Foundation, 2007.


[vi] Hairston, Creasie F. Focus on Children with Incarcerated Parents. The Annie E. Casey

Foundation, 2007.

[vii] Hairston, Creasie F. Focus on Children with Incarcerated Parents. The Annie E. Casey

Foundation, 2007.

[viii] Golden, Renny. War on the Family : Mothers in Prison and the Families They Leave

Behind. New York: Routledge, 2005.

[ix] Springerm D.W. Effects of a Solution-Focused Mutual Aid Group for Hispanic Children of Incarcerated Parents. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 2000. 


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