More American children than ever are experiencing life with at least one parent behind bars, with estimates ranging from 1.7 to 2.7 million children affected on any given day.[i],[ii] The Pew Charitable Trusts reported in 2010 that one in every 28 children in the U.S. has a parent behind bars, up from one in 125 just 25 years earlier.[iii] That’s an average of about one child in every classroom across the country.
The U.S. has the unseemly distinction of being the world’s leader in locking up its own residents, currently holding more than 2.3 million people in jail or prison.[iv] These record incarceration rates affect growing numbers of parents and children. Between 1991 and midyear 2007, the number of parents held in state and federal prisons increased by 79%, and children of incarcerated parents increased by 80%.[v]
“We are living in a world where growing up with a parent in jail or prison is becoming a normal fact of life for too many children,” says Janelle Prueter, head of corrections reentry services for Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities (TASC), an Illinois nonprofit that provides statewide reentry case management and alternatives to incarceration.
As the numbers of parents and children affected by incarceration have increased, so too have the studies on the consequences of this phenomenon. In its March 2012 Psychological Bulletin, the American Psychological Association reported that, based on 40 studies on the impact of incarceration on children, antisocial behavior is the most pronounced risk for these children. “The most rigorous studies showed that parental incarceration is associated with higher risk for children’s antisocial behavior,” write Murray et al., “but not for mental health problems, drug use, or poor educational performance.”[vi]
In the April 2012 issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family, Johnson and Easterling concur that the unique impact of a parent’s incarceration is, as yet, undetermined. They note that it is difficult to single out the effects of incarceration as distinct from the other adversities these children face.[vii] For instance, people affected by incarceration also face disproportionate levels of poverty and addiction, as compared to the general population.
“In Illinois, thousands of children who have incarcerated parents are dealing with a parent’s addiction as well,” says Prueter, who oversees services for more than 6,000 substance-involved people each year who are in prison and on parole in Illinois.
Indeed, substance use disorders fuel the incarceration epidemic. According to the latest Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring data collected in 10 sites across the U.S., more than 60 percent of people arrested in 2011 tested positive for at least one illicit substance, with rates in Chicago and Sacramento topping 80 percent.[viii] Two thirds of incarcerated individuals meet the clinical criteria for substance addiction, but only 11 percent receive any kind of treatment.[ix]
“Having an incarcerated parent is an adverse childhood experience, and so is having an addicted parent,” says Peter Palanca, executive vice president of TASC and vice chair of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACoA). “We need to pay attention to what’s happening to these children. They need intervention and resources not only to help them get through their current circumstances in a pro-social way, but also to prevent them from experiencing poorer health and social problems later in their lives.”
The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study is an ongoing research effort of Kaiser Permanente and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Based on more than 17,000 health screenings of adults, it reveals “staggering proof of the health, social, and economic risks that result from childhood trauma.”[x] The imprisonment of a parent is one of the childhood adversities measured in the 10-question survey. The higher a person’s ACE score, the stronger the likelihood that he or she will experience troubles such as alcoholism, illicit drug use, smoking, lung disease, liver disease, sexually transmitted diseases, and other negative health outcomes.
Stigma is a key factor associated with these adverse experiences, says Palanca. “As with children of alcoholics, children of incarcerated parents face a great deal of shame, guilt, and confusion. They need to have a voice, a safe way of expressing their thoughts and feelings about what’s happening.”
With more than 2,200 state and federal correctional facilities across the U.S., there are scant resources for the children of parents housed in these institutions. One program in Illinois is the Moms & Babies program at the Decatur Correctional Center, where mothers of newborns receive counseling and resources to help them learn healthy parenting skills. Focusing on incarcerated fathers, the National Fatherhood Initiative has developed the faith-based InsideOut Dadprogram, an evidence-based reentry model currently used in about two dozen correctional facilities across the country.
Once released from prison, people on parole need strong support in establishing new and positive connections with their communities and families. In Illinois–where 49,000 people are in state prisons and another 25,000 are on parole–Summits of Hope resource fairs provide information for men and women who have been released from state correctional facilities. Supported by the Illinois Department of Corrections and organized locally by community groups, service agencies, and government, these events offer individually-tailored guidance through information on parenting training, drug treatment, health screening, interviewing skills, and more.
Although resources for incarcerated parents and their children are scant compared to the need, these programs represent some of the trends toward acknowledging the scope and importance of the matter. The issue has garnered international awareness as well. In March 2012, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution in support of children’s rights, with sections devoted to the issue of parental incarceration. [xi] The concept was originated in the U.S. by the San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership, who defined this Bill of Rights for children of incarcerated parents:[xii]
1. I have the right to be kept safe and informed at the time of my parent’s arrest.
2. I have the right to be heard when decisions are made about me.
3. I have the right to be considered when decisions are made about my parent.
4. I have the right to be well-cared for in my parent’s absence.
5. I have the right to speak with, see, and touch my parent.
6. I have the right to support as I face my parent’s incarceration.
7. I have the right not to be judged, blamed, or labeled because of my parent’s incarceration.
8. I have the right to a lifelong relationship with my parent.
The short-term and long-term consequences of a parent’s incarceration are still being studied, and will vary from child to child. What is becoming more recognized, however, is the fact that record numbers of children are being affected.
“There’s so much more we all can do,” says Palanca. “A good place to start is understanding that children of incarcerated parents have a right to be heard and recognized. Teachers, counselors, youth workers, and faith leaders are uniquely positioned to notice what’s happening and provide extra support. We also need to better connect incarcerated parents with their children in a healthy ways. Every child in the world has a right to feel safe and loved.”
The bill of rights for children of incarcerated parents can be found at www.sfcipp.org
For information on the impact of addiction on children and families, visit www.nacoa.org
For further information on TASC’s reentry services in Illinois, visit www.tasc.org.
[ii] The Pew Charitable Trusts, (2010). Collateral Costs: Incarceration’s Effect on Economic Mobility. Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts.
[v] Glaze, L. E. & Maruschak, L. M. (2008, August). Parents in prison and their minor children. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Special Report. NCJ 222984.
[vi] Murray, J., Farrington, D. P. & Sekol, I. (2012, March). Children’s antisocial behavior, mental health, drug use, and educational performance after parental incarceration: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 138(2), 175-210.
[vii] Johnson, E. & Easterling, B. (2012, April). Understanding unique effects of parental incarceration on children: Challenges, progress, and recommendations. Journal of Marriage and Family. Vol. 74(2), 342-356.
- Contributed by Daphne Baille, director of communications for TASC