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.

» Return to the overview of the Listening Session Summary page.
» Return to Youth Perspectives page.

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.

Reports: Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program Evaluation Findings (FY 2010-2014)

These reports illustrate the findings of 41 rigorous evaluations conducted through the OAH Teen Pregnancy Prevention (TPP) Program.

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.

P3 Round 2 Bidders Conference

On May 9, 2016, representatives from Federal agencies presented details of the Notice Inviting Applications (NIA) for the second round (FY 2015) of Performance Partnership Pilots for Disconnected Youth (P3), including application requirements and selection criteria for potential applicants.

Watch the webinar recording:

Download the presentation slides (PDF, 71 pages).

Download the transcript (PDF, 20 pages).

Please note: Since this presentation is pre-recorded, there was not a live Q&A session; however, you can still submit questions. While registering for the webinar, you were able to submit questions about P3 or the current Notice Inviting Applications. We have used these queries to develop and post responses to the frequently asked questions (FAQs) page. If you have remaining questions after viewing the webinar recording, you are encouraged to email disconnectedyouth@ed.gov, so that we can provide answers, as appropriate. Additional information may be made available at a subsequent date, depending on the questions received. You will be able to find any new information on http://youth.gov/P3.

Financial Capability & Literacy

Financial capability and literacy is “the capacity, based on knowledge, skills, and access, to manage financial resources effectively.”1 This set of skills can help youth achieve financial well-being, which happens when they can fully meet current and ongoing financial obligations, feel secure in their financial future, and are capable of making decisions that allow them to enjoy life.2 Financial education is how youth can learn these skills through a variety of resources and programming.

Today’s youth face a financial marketplace that is more complex than the one faced by previous generations. A recent study found that millennials have greater financial concerns than older generations:

  • 55 percent of millennials with student debt worry that they will not be able to pay off their debt, and
  • almost 50 percent are concerned that they have too much debt in general (i.e., credit cards).3

Financial capability is knowing how to spend wisely, manage credit, and plan for the future. Financial capability is an effective way to help youth, no matter their circumstances, avoid common financial vulnerabilities and build economic stability.4 Youth should be educated about finances early in life and at pivotal points in their development and financial lives.5 Having a higher financial literacy early in life is associated with:

  • less credit card debt,
  • higher savings rates,
  • and fewer personal bankruptcies.6

As they approach high school graduation, students and their caregivers will make important decisions about whether to pursue higher education and if so, how to face the reality of paying for it. Additionally, youth who do not attend college or trade school directly after high school will more quickly face financial responsibilities as adults.7 These early choices can have a long-lasting impact on their financial well-being.


Brochures and Fact Sheets from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)
This website provides a list of the CFPB’s brochures, bookmarks, fact sheets, fliers, worksheets, and posters that can be downloaded or ordered in bulk. Many of these publications are available in multiple languages.

This website can help youth manage their money, understand credit, identify scams, and prevent theft.

Money Smart for Young People
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) offers Money Smart, a financial education curriculum designed to teach basic financial topics to people with low- and moderate-levels of income. Tools are available for different age groups and in nine languages.

This website contains financial education resources for young people, caregivers, and educators. It is organized around the My Money Five principles: spend, earn, save and invest, protect, and borrow.

Quick Tips for Managing Your Money (from the FDIC)
This web page provides strategies and practical guidance to help young adults and teenagers with borrowing, saving, banking, and avoiding scams.


1 U.S. Department of the Treasury, 2010
2 Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, 2015
3 Mottola, 2014; millennials are born between 1978 and 1994
4 Consumer Protection Financial Bureau & U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, 2014
5 Center for Financial Security, 2012
6 Bernheim, Garrett, & Maki, 2001
7 McCormick, 2009

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

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.

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.

Supporting Children and Families of Prisoners. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Children’s Bureau.

Video Visiting in Corrections: Benefits, Limitations, and Implementation Considerations. National Institute of Corrections.


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.

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Observance: 2016 National Foster Care Month

May is National Foster Care Month, a month set aside to acknowledge foster parents, family members, volunteers, mentors, policymakers, child welfare professionals, and other members of the community who help children and youth in foster care find permanent homes and connections.

Resource: 2016 National Foster Care Month Microsite

In anticipation of National Foster Care Month in May, the Children's Bureau and Child Welfare Information Gateway developed a new microsite.