Children of Incarcerated Parents

OJJDP FY 17 Second Chance Act Smart on Juvenile Justice: Community Supervision Reform

As many as 100,000 youth younger than 18 years old are released from juvenile correctional facilities every year. These young people often return to their communities with complex needs, such as physical and behavioral health issues and barriers to education and employment.

OJJDP FY 17 Changing Minds: Professional Development and Public Education to Address Children Exposed to Violence and Childhood Trauma

To extend and continue the important work done to date in educating the public and in professional development on children exposed to violence, OJJDP invites applications to provide training, technical assistance, and resources to state, local, and tribal professionals who work with at-risk children and justice-involved youth in three discrete categories of funding, as described following: Category 1: Master Trainings/Training of Trainers on CEV and childhood trauma for educators and educational administrators in public school and correctional and alternative education settings based on the

Tip Sheet for Providers: Supporting Children Who Have an Incarcerated Parent

Download the PDF (2 pages)Tip Sheet for Providers: Supporting Children Who Have an Incarcerated Parent

This tip sheet was written by youth who have or have had incarcerated parents for service providers who work with them or may interact with them. The purpose is to provide practical advice for how to help the 2.7 million children and youth who have at least one incarcerated parent.

In June 2016, the federal government hosted a listening session with youth from across the country who have or have had an incarcerated parent. The listening session brought together 19 youth, ages 15 to 23, with a diverse range of experiences to discuss the challenges they had during their parent's incarceration and their ideas for how the government could better support them and their families. This tip sheet is a product of that listening session.

WHO CAN USE THIS TIP SHEET? This tip sheet was developed for service providers, who may be staff at youth serving organizations, including community-based and faith-based; advocacy agencies; or state and local government agencies such as departments of labor, housing, corrections, and education.

From the youth: What you should know.

  • We rely on our own inner strength
  • We often grow up too soon taking on responsibilities:
    • Taking care of younger siblings
    • Getting jobs to help with family finances
    • Negotiating services such as healthcare and mental health
    • Navigating systems and avoiding negative attention from Child Welfare or Human Services who might take us or our siblings away
  • We love our parents, even though they have made mistakes. We miss them during:
    • Big events like having the parent there for holidays and graduation
    • Small activities like having the parent there to help with homework and going to our sporting event
    • Everyday opportunities for having parent as a role model
  • We are misjudged by many and negatively judged because of our parent(s) or our parent’s actions
  • We are sometimes told we will turn out like our parent(s) and we are constantly fighting against and running from that judgement
  • We have different experiences than other youth whose parent is absent for another reason like divorce:
    • Not being able to pick up the phone and talk to our parent any time we want
    • Not being able to hug our parent during a visit
    • Being judged differently and feeling shame and stigma because of those judgments
  • We have different experiences even from each other:
    • Living arrangements before the incarceration
    • Relationship status with our parent before the incarceration
    • Being told the truth or lies about the incarceration
    • Involvement with child welfare during the incarceration
    • Changes in financial stability during the incarceration
  • We are not different from other youth in that we are young people, too, with the same needs and wants:
    • To be loved
    • To have support
    • To be successful
    • To have friends
  • We do not have control over the situation, which is difficult:
    • We don’t know what to expect with the incarceration process or when visiting our parent in a facility
    • We don’t know with any certainty when we will be able to talk to or see our parent again

From the youth: Changes we would like to see.

  • Increased opportunities to visit. Our parents are often incarcerated in facilities that are far away. Whenever safe and appropriate we would like for courts and correctional agencies to place our incarcerated parents in facilities closer to family. If that’s not possible, courts, corrections, and community-based organizations could consider providing additional transportation assistance to make visitation easier.
  • More frequent and less expensive opportunities to communicate. The cost of phone calls from prison can be too expensive, making it difficult, or even impossible, for us to communicate with our parents. Corrections could consider reducing these costs and allowing for longer calls. Organizations serving youth could consider ways to help pay for or share the costs of calls, which would allow us to talk to our parents more often.
  • Better communication between corrections and schools. We would like our parents to have the opportunity to participate in parent-teacher conferences. Corrections and courts should consider allowing flexibility for our parents to participate by phone or video technology, which the schools could help coordinate. Additionally, we often receive unexcused absences from school for going to visit our parents during the school day, even when we do not have other options. Schools could consider providing excused absences, and corrections could consider providing proof of visitation.
  • Improved sharing of information about our parents. During the arrest, pretrial, trial, incarceration, and reentry processes, our parents are frequently moved around without letting us know. Courts, corrections, and probation should consider ways to ensure that we and our families have the most up to date information possible on the location of our parents.
  • Better understanding about the impact of mandatory reporting rules. We frequently choose not to share personal details about our parents or our lives with people or organizations who we fear will report that information to child welfare. Youth serving organizations should be aware of our hesitations and find safe, comfortable ways for us to share what is happening in our lives.
  • Friendlier interactions when visiting. We often feel like we are the ones who have done something wrong when we go to visit our incarcerated parents. Most prisons have strict rules about who can visit, the number of visitors, what we can bring, what we can wear, etc. These rules can be unclear, cause our families stress, and sometimes even result in a cancelled visit. Youth serving organizations can help us understand the rules and prepare for our visit. Corrections can make the rules easier to find and provide training for staff that reminds them that family visits are supposed to be a positive experience for all.

Tip Sheet for Youth: Youth Supporting Fellow Youth Who Have an Incarcerated Parent

Download the PDF (2 pages)Tip Sheet for Youth: Youth Supporting Fellow Youth Who Have an Incarcerated Parent

This tip sheet was written BY youth who have or have had incarcerated parents FOR youth who have incarcerated parents. The purpose is to provide words of support and encouragement.

In June 2016, the federal government hosted a listening session with youth from across the country who have or have had an incarcerated parent. The listening session brought together 19 youth, ages 15 to 23, with a diverse range of experiences to discuss the challenges they had during their parent's incarceration and their ideas for how the government could better support them and their families. This tip sheet is a product of that listening session.

You are not alone. Here are some things many of us experience:

  • We rely on our own inner strength
  • We often grow up too soon taking on responsibilities:
    • Taking care of younger siblings
    • Getting jobs to help with family finances
    • Obtaining services such as physical and mental healthcare
    • Navigating systems and avoiding negative attention from Child Welfare or Human Services who might take us or our siblings away
  • We love our parents, even though they have made mistakes. We miss them during:
    • Big events like having the parent there for holidays and graduation
    • Small activities like having the parent there to help with homework and going to our sporting event
    • Everyday opportunities for having parent as a role model
  • We are misjudged by many and negatively judged because of our parent(s) or our parent’s actions
  • We are sometimes told we will turn out like our parent(s) and we are constantly fighting against and running from that judgement
  • We have different experiences than other youth whose parent is absent for another reason like divorce:
    • Not being able to pick up the phone and talk to our parent any time we want
    • Not being able to hug our parent during a visit
    • Being judged differently and feeling shame and stigma because of those judgments
  • We have different experiences even from each other:
    • Living arrangements before the incarceration
    • Relationship status with our parent before the incarceration
    • Being told the truth or lies about the incarceration
    • Involvement with child welfare during the incarceration
    • Changes in financial stability during the incarceration
  • We are not different from other youth in that we are young people, too, with the same needs and wants:
    • To be loved
    • To have support
    • To be successful
    • To have friends
  • We do not have control over the situation, which is difficult:
    • We don’t know what to expect with the incarceration process or when visiting our parent in a facility
    • We don’t know with any certainty when we will be able to talk to or see our parent again

Advice for Youth from Youth who have or have had an incarcerated parent:

  • Seek out resource lists on websites from government or other trusted organizations
  • Reach out for help if you need it
    • Look to a trusted adult such as youth group leader, school counselor, or mentor for help
    • Advocate for help that is relevant to your situation — let them know what you need
    • Ask for help finding a counselor who is experienced with issues of incarceration
  • Look for programs that have specific services for youth with an incarcerated parent and are familiar with your challenges and needs
    • Look for programs that offer transportation to help you visit your parent
    • Find after-school programs, weekend activities, mentoring, or other programs
  • Find ways to cope with the challenges of having an incarcerated parent
    • Get involved with activities like sports or athletics, community service volunteering, etc.
    • Find ways to express yourself like writing, art, music, design, video/filmmaking, etc.
  • Know that you are not alone — 2.7 million youth have an incarcerated parent
    • Find a support group to be able to talk with others going through the same thing
  • Know there are opportunities to be an advocate
    • Channel your emotions (which might include anger and pain) into making a positive change through advocacy
    • Work with organizations to suggest that they include youth with incarcerated parents on planning committees and boards
    • Develop well thought-out messages when requesting change in a policy or procedure that affects you
    • Be part of efforts to create and expand visiting and mentoring programs
    • Advocate for financial backing and funding for effective programs

Resource: Change in Parent-Child Relationships Before, During, and After Incarceration

This brief uses data from the Multi-site Family Study on Incarceration, Parenting and Partnering to examine several aspects of fathers’ relationships with their children after their release from incarceration, including residential arrangements, financial support, and the quality of the relationships the fathers reported having with their children.

Report: The Experiences of Families During a Father’s Incarceration

This report uses data from a longitudinal impact study to illustrate the experiences of 1,482 incarcerated fathers and their intimate or coparenting partners

Report: The Federal Interagency Reentry Council: A Record of Progress and a Roadmap for the Future

This report highlights the achievements and future goals of the Federal Interagency Reentry Council and features links to multiple resources related to reentry, employment, healthcare, children of incarcerated parents, special populations, and collateral consequences.

HHS and DOJ host listening session with youth who have an incarcerated parent

The effects of incarceration are felt far beyond prison walls: children, families, and communities also experience the consequences of incarceration.

Tip Sheet for Prison/Jail Staff and Volunteers: Supporting Children Who Have an Incarcerated Parent

Download the PDF (2 pages)

Prison and jail staff and volunteers play an important role in facilitating visits and helping make visits a positive experience for children with incarcerated parents. Visits from family members can help promote strong family ties and have been shown to decrease recidivism.1 For children, visits are an important way to maintain the relationship with their incarcerated parent, which can have important implications on a child’s behavior and mental health.2 Staff and volunteers are the first and last individuals that children see in the facility; their support of family visits can set an important tone that parent-child relationships are valued and important.

Common Toxic Stress of Children of Incarcerated Parents

1. Children with an incarcerated parents may be in your classroom. 2.7 million (or 1 in 28) children currently have an incarcerated parent. More than 10 million children have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their childhoods. Given these numbers, there may be a child in your classroom or school who has an incarcerated parent.1 Women are a fast growing part of the correctional population (the number of incarcerated women increased at nearly 1.5 times the rate of men between 1980 and 2010).2 If your student’s mother has been incarcerated, there is an increased likelihood of instability in that student’s home and an increased chance that student may enter foster care or have to move to another caregiver’s home (such as a grandparent).3

Many children with incarcerated parents have had multiple adverse experiences in their lifetime, which may or may not be related to their parent’s incarceration. For example, when looking at the children of incarcerated parents in Arkansas, it was reported that 40 percent of children had been present at the time of their parent’s arrest and 27 percent of arrests were instances where a weapon was drawn.3 These experiences can be very traumatic for children and may cause them to feel uncomfortable around law enforcement.

In addition, children with incarcerated parents may be struggling with other challenging experiences, such as financial hardship resulting from a primary provider becoming incarcerated4 and families having to pay for expensive legal fees.5 Many have been exposed to violence in their homes and in their communities6 and have lived with a parent with a mental illness or history of substance abuse.7

Children with incarcerated parents may also experience social and institutional stigma. They may feel shame or embarrassment about their parent’s incarceration and worry about being judged for what their parents did. In addition to trauma they might be feeling lonely, isolated, scared, angry, or depressed, and they might be navigating difficult family circumstances, sometimes with very little support.

How Can Prison Staff and Volunteers Help to Create a Positive Environment for Family Visitations?

A child’s visits with an incarcerated parent can be a positive experience and can help to build or maintain a positive parent-child relationship. However, visits can also be stressful for children and may cause them to feel afraid or sad about the separation when the visit is over.8 Prison staff and volunteers are in a unique position to help ease these feelings and prevent any further traumatization by taking some quick steps to set a positive tone for children visiting their parents.

Before the Visit

  • Children often have to travel long distances to see their parents and can understandably be very disappointed if they are turned away. To help ensure the maximum number of children are able to visit, it is helpful if staff make sure all caregivers bringing children to visit are informed about visitation rules, such as the dress code and the maximum number of children allowed to visit. It is best to have this information conveyed to visitors prior to arriving at the facility, either on a facility website, in an email, or over the phone. If incarcerated parents are also informed of the rules, they can share this information with visitors before they arrive. Clearly communicating the rules — and applying them consistently — will reduce visitors’ and incarcerated parents’ confusion and frustration.
  • Visitors who are coming for the first time or are not able to visit very often are usually unfamiliar with the visiting process and can feel very anxious not knowing what will happen next. Having a staff member or volunteer calmly explain the steps (e.g. “You will wait here and then you will go through additional security.”) to caregivers and children can decrease the anxiety they may be feeling about the process.
  • Security procedures can be intimidating for children. Make these spaces as friendly as possible by clearly explaining the procedures and having procedures posted. Offering children a small reward, such as a sticker or even a high-five for successfully going through security, can help set the stage for a positive visit and help the child see staff and volunteers as approachable.
  • Children can also be made to feel more comfortable during what can be a stressful time by having staff and volunteers acknowledge them, smile, and talk to them in a positive tone. Acknowledging something positive about the child (e.g., “I really like your hair” or “You are doing a great job waiting!”) can help set a welcoming tone.
  • Long wait times can cause children to become irritable, which can cause caregivers to become stressed. They may have a hard time sitting still or controlling their bodies. Whenever possible, decreasing the time a child has to wait before visiting their parent and making the waiting room child-friendly by having books or other activities available may help reduce children’s anxiety, thereby reducing caregivers’ stress.

During the Visit

  • Non-contact visits can be stressful for children because they can see, but not touch their parent, which is not typically the way parents and children interact (especially for young children). Allowing for as much contact as possible can ease this stress and can be an important way for children to feel connected to their parents.
  • Children may be easily distracted by other visitors and in some cases the behavior or language of other visitors may not be appropriate for children. Give family visitors as much privacy as possible, without compromising safety and security.
  • Children may be intimidated very easily in this setting, especially if they have had negative interactions with police officers in the past. If a child breaks a rule during a visit, use a calm voice and age-appropriate language to help the child understand the rule.
  • Visits are often time-limited. Help prepare children and caregivers for the end of the visit by making sure they know how long the visits are and reminding them a few minutes before the visit ends. This will provide children with an opportunity to say goodbye to their parent in a meaningful way.

Related Resources for Further Reading

Children of Incarcerated Parents. Children of Incarcerated Parents Federal Website.
http://www.youth.gov/coip

From Prison to Home: The Effect of Incarceration and Reentry on Children, Families, and Communities. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation.
https://aspe.hhs.gov/pdf-report/prison-home-effect-incarceration-and-reentry-children-families-and-communities

Supporting Children and Families of Prisoners. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Children’s Bureau.
https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/supporting/support-services/prisoners/

Video Visiting in Corrections: Benefits, Limitations, and Implementation Considerations. National Institute of Corrections.
http://nicic.gov/library/029609

References

1 Shanahan, R. & Villalobos Agudelo, S. (2012). The Family and Recidivism. American Jails, pp 17-24.
2 The Federal Interagency Working Group for Children of Incarcerated Parents. (2013). Promoting Social and Emotional Well-Being for Children of Incarcerated Parents.
3 Harm, N. J. & Phillips, S. D. (1998). Helping children cope with the trauma of parental arrest. Interdisciplinary Report on At Risk Children and Families, 1, pp 35-36.
4 La Vigne, N., et al. (2008). Broken Bonds: Understanding and Addressing the Needs of Children with Incarcerated Parents. The Urban Institute.
5 Hairston, C. F. (2003). Prisoners and Their Families: parenting issues during incarceration. Prisoners Once Removed, pp 259-279.
6 Uchida, C. D., Swatt, M., & Solomon, S. E. (2012). Exposure to violence among children of inmates: a research agenda. Silver Spring, MD: Justice & Security Strategies.
7 Mumola, C. J. (2000). Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Reports: Parents in prison and their children. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.
8 Arditti, J. A. (2003). Locked doors and glass walls: Family visiting at a local jail. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 8, pp 115-138.