Programs and Strategies for Justice–Involved Young Adults

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

Download the PDF (4 pages).COIP TIp Sheet for Mentors

Mentors can play an important role in addressing the needs of children of incarcerated parents. Mentors are caring adults who work with youth as positive role models in a formal or informal way, offering consistent guidance and support. Youth connect with mentors through youth-serving organizations, including community-based organizations, faith-based organizations, businesses, and after-school programs. Mentors can help improve outcomes for the children of incarcerated parents by using research-based practices and effective supports.


  • Every family’s experience is different. Some children lived with their incarcerated parent before their parent’s incarceration and others did not. Some children had a close relationship with that parent (regardless of whether they lived together) and others may not have. It is important not to make any assumptions.
  • Be aware of what researchers call the “conspiracy of silence.” Sometimes caregivers instruct children not to discuss the situation with anyone, for fear of the stigma and shame associated with incarceration. Children, too, may worry about people judging their parent. However, not understanding or not being able to talk about the situation can also be a source of stress for children. Sometimes the silence around the situation can become an inadvertent cause of shame. It is important for mentors to understand this dynamic and to signal to their mentees that they can be trusted and will not judge the child or their parent.1
  • Keep in mind that a parent’s crime or the fact that he or she is incarcerated does not indicate what kind of parent that individual was before incarceration, nor does it necessarily speak to a child’s relationship with that parent. Further, it is not a sign of the type of parent someone will be after release.

How Can Mentors Support Children Who Have an Incarcerated Parent?

Mentors can build a trusting relationship by participating in various activities with the child of an incarcerated parent.

Establish Understanding

  • Recognize that children of incarcerated parents may have difficulty trusting new adults. Because many have suffered a traumatic and sudden separation from their parent, they may be slow to trust new adults in their lives for fear that these people could also leave.
  • Sign up for a mentoring commitment only if you know you can stay involved for the designated period of time. You may want to establish clear expectations with your mentee for how frequently you will see him or her.
  • Learn from your mentor organization, the family, or the caregiver, whether the child knows the parent is incarcerated, how the child is coping with the parent’s incarceration, and what the status of the relationship is between the child and the caregiver.
  • Recognize that young people who have an incarcerated parent face different realities regarding their situation, ranging from not knowing about the incarceration to having witnessed an arrest, and wondering whether it is their fault. Reinforce that the incarceration is not their fault.
  • Understand that it is the youth’s decision to share details about their parent’s absence. It is best not to ask. They may choose to tell you, but it is not important to the mentor/mentee relationship.

Develop the Relationship

  • Take the time to learn about each other by talking about interests, family, and other topics based on your mentee’s comfort level. While getting to know the youth, be aware of potential sensitivities when talking about families. It is not necessary to avoid the topic of having an incarcerated parent, but be sensitive and avoid making assumptions.
  • Identify objectives for the mentoring relationship, preferably focused on the mentee’s goals and growth, possibly through shared interests.
  • Spend time doing activities that interest the child and expose him or her to new things and places (e.g., sports, games, arts, crafts, field trips to museums) while being sensitive to how your mentee might feel when out of his or her comfort zone and in unfamiliar surroundings.
  • Share stories and information about your own life experiences, including successes and challenges experienced along the way. If relevant, you may share your own experiences with having an absent parent, but keep in mind that having an incarcerated parent may be a different experience than other kinds of absence.

Mentors can help youth maintain their relationship with their incarcerated parent after learning the mentee’s, parent’s, and caregiver’s wishes regarding communication and the relationship.

  • Help your mentee understand that a parent’s incarceration does not have to be the end of the relationship between him or her and the absent parent.
  • Understand the barriers your mentee may face in maintaining or building a relationship with their incarcerated parent. These may include finances, communication, visitation/transportation, time commitments such as education and employment, and the desires of the incarcerated parent and/or caregiver.
  • Facilitate simple and inexpensive ways to foster the relationship.
    • Help youth coordinate with their parent specific days and times for phone calls, given facility rules and policies.
    • Help your mentee communicate with the incarcerated parent through letters, cards, or creative activities to keep the parent informed about the mentee’s life (e.g., drawings, photos, a collage of pictures about academic and extracurricular achievements that can be mailed or emailed to the parent). Provide the child with a box of stationery or notecards and postage, as allowed.
    • Become informed about the visitation process so you can help your mentee prepare for any potential visits to the incarcerated parent by sharing what to expect (e.g., going through security procedures, long drives and long waits, talking through a window or via videoconferencing, leaving food and personal items in the waiting area, dress codes, and lists of contraband).
  • Anticipate that visits may be difficult for the youth, even if they were looking forward to the trip. Expect that your mentee may have heightened emotions in the days following a visit. Mentors can help youth express their thoughts and emotions and explain that what they are feeling is normal. Help your mentee talk about the positive aspects of the visit.

Mentors can help the youth cope with having an incarcerated parent by understanding the situation without judgment and then providing assistance, education, and information.

  • If necessary and when appropriate, help the child understand the parent’s incarceration while honoring the wishes of the parent and/or caregiver. This may include providing or suggesting informative, age-appropriate literature. A variety of books on the topic of parental incarceration have been written for children at different age levels. You can find these books for sale online or at your public library. There are also free resources such as Sesame Street’s Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration.
  • Conduct informal networking in which the young person has opportunities to meet others who can contribute to his or her growth or serve as an inspiration, including other young people with incarcerated parents so youth know they are not alone.
  • Bring your concerns to the caregiver and/or the mentoring organization if you feel you have reached your capacity to address a mentee’s needs, and consider advocating and researching options for opportunities for the child to speak with a professional counselor about any challenges they might be experiencing.2

Mentors can support and help youth prepare for and adjust to their parent’s reentry into their lives, family, and community.

  • Recognize and acknowledge that there will be a transition period and the new circumstances may present challenges for the youth, parent, and caregiver. Keep in mind that:
    • A youth might have to adapt to having both parents as caregivers. Differences in parenting philosophies and choices can be sources of stress and conflict for the whole family.
    • A caregiver might have to adjust to co-parenting, which can be challenging after long periods of parenting alone.
    • Possible custody hearings or other proceedings may be difficult.
    • The homecoming may not live up to expectations. The recently released parent may not want a child to have a mentor.
    • The current caretaker may no longer be a child’s guardian after a parent’s release. This transition could be hard on everyone.


  • Children who have an incarcerated parent are at heightened risk for exposure to substance abuse, mental illness, and inadequate education before their parent’s incarceration.3
  • The risk of children living in poverty or experiencing household instability increases with parental incarceration.4
  • Parental incarceration is recognized as an adverse childhood experience (ACE); it is distinguished from other ACEs by the combination of trauma, shame, and stigma.5
  • Youth developmental stages influence the experiences and effects of incarceration on children who have a parent in prison.6
    • Ages 2 to 6: separation anxiety, impaired social-emotional development, traumatic stress, and survivor guilt.
    • Ages 7 to 10: developmental regression, poor self-concepts, acute traumatic stress reactions, and impaired ability to overcome future trauma.
    • Ages 11 to 14: rejection of limits to behavior and trauma-reactive behaviors.
    • Ages 15 to 18: premature termination of dependency relationship with parent.

Relationship Resources

Overall Policy of Maintaining Parent-Child Relationships During Incarceration. State of Washington.
https://www.courts.wa.gov/subsite/mjc/docs/OverallPolicyArgumentsforIncarceratedParents.pdf (PDF, 7 pages)

Children of Parents In Jail or Prison: Issues Related to Maintaining Contact. Office of Child Development, University of Pittsburgh.

Children Visiting Incarcerated Parents.
https://www.dhs.state.or.us/caf/safety_model/procedure_manual/appendices/ch4-app/4-16.pdf (PDF, 5 pages)

Children of Incarcerated Parents Library. Visiting Mom or Dad: The Child’s Perspective.
http://nrccfi.camden.rutgers.edu/files/cipl105-visitingmomordad.pdf (PDF, 9 pages)

Children of Incarcerated Parents Library. Jail and Prison Procedures: Information for Families.
http://nrccfi.camden.rutgers.edu/files/cipl106-jailandprisonprocedures.pdf (PDF, 6 pages)

Mentoring Resources

National Mentoring Resource Center.

Mentoring Children of Incarcerated Parents. Jarjoura, G.R., et al.
http://www.ojjdp.gov/about/MentoringCOIP2013.pdf (PDF, 63 pages)

Mentoring. Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs.

Support Resources

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

Meeting the Needs of Children With an Incarcerated Parent American Bar Association.

How to Explain…Jails and Prisons…to Children: A Caregiver’s Guide. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
http://www.f2f.ca.gov/res/pdf/HowToExplainJails.pdf (PDF, 15 pages)

How to Explain Jails and Prisons to Children: A Caregivers Guide. Inside Out Connection Project.
https://www.ifound.org/files/5914/4838/5784/InsideOutBrochure_FINAL.pdf (PDF, 31 pages)

Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration. Sesame Street Workshop.

General Resources

Children of Incarcerated Parents. Children of Incarcerated Parents Federal Website.

FAQs About Children of Prisoners. Prison Fellowship.


1 Jose-Kampfner, C. (1995). Post-traumatic stress reactions in children of imprisoned mothers. In K. Gabel & D. Johnston (Eds.), Children of incarcerated parents (pp. 89–100). New York, NY: Lexington Books.
2 Christian, S. (2009). Children of incarcerated parents. Denver, CO: National Conference of State Legislatures.
3 Phillip, S. D., Erkanli, A., Keeler, G. P., Costello, J. E., & Angold, A. (2006). Disentangling the risks: Parent criminal justice involvement and children’s exposure to family risks. Criminology and Public Policy, 5, 677–702.
4 Ibid.
5 Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., ... Marks, J. S. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4), 245–258.
6 Travis, J., McBride Cincotta, E., & Solomon, A. L. (2005). Families left behind: The hidden costs of incarceration and reentry. Washington, DC: Urban Institute, Justice Policy Center.

Review: Mentoring for Children of Incarcerated Parents

This review examines research on mentoring for children of incarcerated parents and includes insights and recommendations for practice based on currently available knowledge.

Safeguarding Children of Arrested Parents Roll Call Training Video

The BJA and the IACP collaborated on the creation of the Safeguarding Children of Arrested Parents Roll Call Training Video based on the IACP/BJA Model Policy.

Safeguarding Children of Arrested Parents Roll Call Training Video

The Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) collaborated on the creation of the Safeguarding Children of Arrested Parents Roll Call Training Video based on the IACP/BJA Model Policy.

Guide for Incarcerated Parents Who Have Children in the Child Welfare System

A new guide helps parents involved in the criminal justice system work with the child welfare system to stay involved with their children and understand the reunification process.

Children of Incarcerated Parents: Presentations

Safeguarding Children of Arrested Parents: Implementing the Model Arrest Policy

On May 15, 2019, the Federal Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs, the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the American Institutes for Research hosted the webinar, Safeguarding Children of Arrested Parents: Implementing the Model Arrest Policy. This 90-minute live webinar highlighted the Model Arrest Policy implementation and is recommended for law enforcement staff, probation officers, social services staff, youth serving organizations, and researchers. The purpose of this webinar was:

  1. To highlight how a locality has instituted the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) model arrest policy through collaborations (e.g., between non-profit organizations and government agencies) to protect children of arrested parents.
  2. To share the experiences of a youth who has witnessed the arrest of her parent.
  3. To highlight research on the impact a parent’s arrest has on children, especially those who have witnessed the arrest.

Watch the webinar recording:

Download the presentation slides (PDF, 36 pages). 

Download the transcript (PDF, 27 pages).


Educators are Critical Partners in Making A Difference in the Lives of Children of Incarcerated Parents

On September 24, 2015, the Federal Interagency Reentry Council (FIRC) Subcommittee on Children of Incarcerated Parents and the American Institutes for Research hosted the webinar, Educators are Critical Partners in Making A Difference in the Lives of Children of Incarcerated Parents. This presentation and Q&A session provided the audience with statistics on the prevalence of children with incarcerated parents, practical tips for addressing the needs of these children and youth, and how to use collaboration, focused assistance, and advocacy to contribute to positive outcomes for children who have an incarcerated parent. Presenters included nationally-recognized experts, educators who are currently addressing the needs of children of incarcerate parents, and a youth whose parent is incarcerated:

  • Ann Adalist-Estrin — Director, National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated
  • David Osher — Vice President and Institute Fellow, American Institutes for Research
  • Dwight Davis — Assistant Principal, Turnaround for Children Partner School
  • Kendall T. — U.S. Dream Academy Graduate
  • Download the speaker biographies (PDF, 5 pages).

Watch the webinar recording:

Download the presentation slides (PDF, 60 pages).

Download the transcript (PDF, 20 pages).


» Learn more about Children of Incarcerated Parents at youth.gov/COIP.

» Join the Children of Incarcerated Parents listserv.

Inclusive Internship Programs: A How-to Guide for Employers

This guide provides information for public and private businesses interested in facilitating internship programs that attract all young adults, including those with disabilities.

Inclusive Internship Programs: A How-to-Guide for Employers

ODEP released a new guide for public and private employers of all sizes to learn about the benefits and logistics of facilitating internship programs that attract all young adults, including those with disabilities.

Tip Sheet for Teachers (Pre-K through 12): Supporting Children Who Have an Incarcerated Parent

Download the PDF (2 pages).

School staff make a difference in the lives of all children, including children of incarcerated parents. For the child with a parent in prison, a safe and supportive school can provide a caring, stable setting offering opportunities for educational, social, and emotional development. The bonds and relationships fostered at school with peers and trusted adults play a vital role in the child’s short and long term learning and maturation.

Five Things to Know About Children Who Have an Incarcerated Parent

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

2. Having an incarcerated parent is recognized as an “adverse childhood experience” (ACE). Exposure to multiple ACEs significantly increases the likelihood of long-term negative behavioral and physical health outcomes.4 Adding to the trauma, many of these children have witnessed their parent’s arrest. One study of parents arrested indicated that 67% were handcuffed in front of their children, 27% reported weapons drawn in front of their children, and 4.3% reported a physical struggle.5 Although it is not always the case, trauma often affects a child’s physiological and emotional responses; ability to think, learn, and concentrate; impulse control; self-image; and relationships with others.

3. Children with a parent in prison may be subject to stereotypes and subconscious negative assumptions. People sometimes assume children with an incarcerated parent will engage in criminal or negative activity like their parent. Be careful about making assumptions about behavior, motivation, academic ability, and potential. Research indicates that these assumptions, even when done subconsciously, can have detrimental impacts on educational outcomes.6 Children who have an incarcerated parent, like any students, have great potential to learn and succeed in school when teachers support them and establish high expectations for them.7

4. Be sensitive to certain trigger issues. When having conversations about current events, crime, criminals, or the police, be mindful of how children with a parent who has been arrested or incarcerated may feel. Children love their parents, even if a parent did something illegal. Be careful about making statements about parental involvement because Dad may not be there to sign permission slips, or Mom may not be there to help with homework. Across all school settings, pay particular attention to children of incarcerated parents being bullied by peers, and help ensure that they are not subjected to biases or stereotypes.6

5. Be aware of what researchers call the “conspiracy of silence.”8 This conspiracy refers to the fact that many caregivers intentionally do not tell children that their parent is incarcerated, deciding instead to explain the absence by saying the parent is sick, away at work or college, or serving time in the military. For children who know their parent is incarcerated, their caregiver may have instructed them to not discuss the situation with anyone, for fear of the stigma and shame associated with incarceration. The child, too, may worry about people judging their parent. However, not understanding the situation or not being able to talk about it can also be a source of stress for children. Sometimes the silence around the situation can become an inadvertent cause of shame. It is important for teachers to understand this dynamic. If a teacher knows that a child has an incarcerated parent, the teacher should be careful not to discuss that information with the child unless confident the child has already been informed. If it appears the child understands the situation and would like to confide in someone, it is important for teachers to signal that they can be trusted, will not judge the parent or the child for loving their parent, and will keep the information the child chooses to disclose confidential.9

How Can Teachers Contribute to Positive Outcomes for Children Who Have an Incarcerated Parent?

Teachers can collaborate with the child’s other parent, family member, or caregiver to create a positive school setting for children of incarcerated parents. Collaboration may include:

  • Sharing relevant information with caregivers concerning successes and struggles, as well as emotional and behavioral concerns; and
  • Becoming aware of community organizations and services available to meet the specialized needs of children with a parent in prison, especially mental health resources.

Teachers can assist children who have an incarcerated parent in reaching their potential and achieving academic and social success by:

  • Implementing behavioral and academic supports that enhance the teaching-learning process;
  • Engaging in classroom methods and approaches that help students with an incarcerated parent increase their capacities to self-regulate behaviors and develop their academic promise;
  • Challenging students with a parent in prison to do their very best academically by providing support and establishing and promoting high expectations for them; and
  • Identifying areas of vulnerability and understanding that negative behaviors and absenteeism may be masking anxiety and depression, which can result from childhood trauma.

Teachers can advocate for children with an incarcerated parent and educate their colleagues on ways to address the specific needs of students who have an incarcerated parent by :

  • Establishing themselves as trusted and caring adults, serving as role models and challenging the stigma and shame that can be associated with parental incarceration;
  • Working with other support/ancillary staff (i.e., art teacher, classroom aide, reading specialist, administrators) to provide one-on-one opportunities for students with a parent in prison to express feelings openly and freely through art, writing, or any other form of free expression. For example, the children could write a letter, draw a picture, or write a poem to share with their parent;
  • Collaborating with school-based mental health professionals (i.e., school psychologists, counselors, or social workers) who understand the developmentally-sensitive implications of parental incarceration and family stress on child well-being; and
  • Asking librarians to offer books/pamphlets about parental incarceration and encourage ALL students to read them, rather than singling out students with an incarcerated parent.

Related Resources for Further Reading

Focus on the Children of Incarcerated Parents: An Overview of the Research Literature. Annie E. Casey Foundation. 2007.
http://www.aecf.org/m/resourcedoc/aecf-FocusonChildrenwith_ncarceratedParentsOverviewofLiterature-2007.pdf (PDF, 44 pages)

Helping Traumatized Children Learn: Creating and Advocating for Trauma-Sensitive Schools. Massachusetts Advocates for Children and Harvard Law School, Vol. 1 and 2, 2013.

Parents Behind Bars: Children of Incarcerated Family Members: An Educator and Caregiver’s Toolkit to Idaho’s Criminal Justice System.
https://www.idoc.idaho.gov/webfm_send/2303 (PDF, 42 pages)

Promoting Social and Emotional Well-being for Children of Incarcerated Parents: A Product of the Federal Interagency Working Group for Children of Incarcerated Parents. June 2013.
http://csgjusticecenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Promoting-Social-and-Emotional-Well-Being-for-Children-of-Incarcerated-Parents.pdf (PDF, 8 pages)

Supporting Students with Incarcerated Parents. Rossen, Eric. Child Trauma Toolkit for Educators. National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (Also available in Spanish.)
http://www.nctsnet.org/resources/audiences/schoolpersonnel/ trauma-toolkit

Teachers Experiences with and Expectations of Children of Incarcerated Parents. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. Vol. 31, Issue 4, pp 281-290. 2010.

The Children of Incarcerated Parents Bill of Rights. The San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership. 2005.

Top 10 Things Every Teacher Should Know About Children of Incarcerated Parents. Project AVARY (Alternative Ventures for At Risk Youth).

What Educators and Schools Need to Know When Working with Children with Incarcerated Parents.
http://www.spac.k12.pa.us/2010conference...20when.pdf (PDF, 8 pages)


1 The Pew Charitable Trusts. (2010). Collateral Costs: Incarceration’s Effect on Economic Mobility. Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts.
2 Guerino, P., Harrison, P. M., & Sabol, W. (2011). Prisoners in 2010. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics.
3 Glaze, L., & Maruschak, L. (2008). Parents in prison and their minor children. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics.
4 Felitti, V. J., et al. (1998). Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4) , pp 245-258.
5 Phillips, S. D. (1998). Programming for children of female offenders. Proceedings from 4th National Head Start Research Conference. Washington, DC. Criminology and Public Policy, 5, 677–702.
6 Dallaire, D. H. (2010). Teachers’ experiences with and expectations of children with incarcerated parents. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 31(4) , pp 281-290.
7 Hinnant, J. B., O’Brien, M., & Ghazarian, S. R. (2009). The longitudinal relations of teacher expectations to achievement in the early school years. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101(3), pp 662-670.
8 Jose-Kampfner, C. (1995). Post-traumatic stress reactions in children of imprisoned mothers. In K. Gabel, & D. Johnston (Eds.) Children of Incarcerated Parents (pp 89-100). New York, NY: Lexington Books.
9 Hairston, C.F. (2007). Focus on the children with incarcerated parents: A overview of the research literature. Annie E. Casey Foundation.