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Listening Session Summary: Introduction

Children of incarcerated parents are an often hidden and underserved population. On behalf of the Federal Interagency Reentry Council (FIRC) subcommittee on Children of Incarcerated Parents (COIP) and the Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs (IWGYP), the American Institutes for Research (AIR) conducted a listening session with youth who have or have had incarcerated parents. AIR worked with the National Resource Center for Children and Families of the Incarcerated (NRCCFI) to recruit a diverse group of youth from across the country who gathered in Washington, D.C., on June 28-29, 2016, for a listening session to discuss their experiences as children of incarcerated parents. We brought together youth with lived experience as children with an incarcerated parent to learn about their unique needs, observations, and suggestions for how to improve services and programs designed for them. This is a summary of the discussions that occurred over the course of the two days.

Having a parent in prison can have an impact on a child’s mental health, social behavior, and educational prospects.1 The emotional trauma that may occur and the practical difficulties of a disrupted family life can be compounded by the social stigma that youth Image of youth speaking at the listening session. may face as a result of having a parent in prison or jail.2 Youth who have an incarcerated parent may experience financial hardship that results from the loss of that parent’s income.3 Further, some incarcerated parents face termination of parental rights because their children have been in the foster care system beyond the time allowed by law.4 These youth require empowerment from local, state, and federal systems to meet their needs.

Youth who have incarcerated parents may also face a number of other challenging circumstances. They may have experienced trauma related to their parent’s arrest or experiences leading up to it.5 Youth with incarcerated parents may also be more likely to have faced other adverse childhood experiences, including witnessing violence in their communities or directly in their household or exposure to drug and alcohol abuse.6

Youth have valuable ideas for improving policy and practice that empower children of incarcerated parents drawn from their own experiences. Adults who work with youth or for youth in various capacities can make a positive difference in the lives of youth who have or have had an incarcerated parent. Policy makers, teachers, mentors, and youth organization staff can help youth tap into their inner strength and resiliency. This document summarizes the feedback youth had for policy makers and practitioners when they had the opportunity to share their experiences at the listening session in Washington, D.C. in June 2016.

On day one of the listening session, the 19 young people from different backgrounds and with varying experiences shared their thoughts with each other during a day of facilitated small group discussion. On day two, they presented their ideas for how to improve the supports and systems that affect youth and families of the incarcerated in front of an audience from Federal departments and agencies. Topics included challenges and successes with available services; communicating, visiting, and maintaining a relationship with their incarcerated parent; and preparing for their parent’s reentry to the family and community.

“We are ready to hear about solutions; not just discuss the problems.”

The purpose of these discussions was to learn more about the effects of parental incarceration on children, youth, and families. The themes that emerged during these discussions will contribute to the understanding of the needs of children with incarcerated parents and their families and will help inform future work regarding policies and procedures contributing to positive outcomes for children (inclusive of children, youth, and young adults) with an incarcerated parent. Participants’ ideas and feedback from the session were used to inform two tip sheets: a tip sheet for youth with an incarcerated parent(s) and a tip sheet for service providers who work with them.

This summary provides information about the planning and process for the listening session, demographic information (PDF, 6 pages) on the youth participants, themes heard from the youth regarding their experience with having an incarcerated parent, and ideas for change youth participants made for policy and practice improvement.


1 La Vigne, Davies, & Brazzell, 2008
2 La Vigne et al., 2008
3 General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 2011
4 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), 2011
5 La Vigne et al., 2008
6 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2013; Phillips & Gleeson, 2007

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