This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal

While mass incarceration in America came to dominate the domestic political and policy debate this year, the impact of imprisoned parents on children has largely remained a side issue.

Two new reports make a strong case for centering children and families more squarely in the foreground of discussions on criminal justice—and within evolving legislative and policy changes affecting incarceration.

“Discussions of U.S. corrections policy do not often consider children,” write P. Mae Cooper and David Murphey, researchers at Child Trends and authors of a comprehensive study on youth and children of imprisoned adults.

“We need effective programs to mitigate the harm associated with having an incarcerated parent. Although in-prison programs focusing on parenting skills are common, few are focused on meeting the needs of children directly during the time parents are in prison,” Cooper and Murphey write.  

Some 5 million children, or roughly 7 percent of all children living in the U.S., have a parent who is currently or was previously incarcerated, according to the study, which was published in October 2015 and drew from National Surveys of Children’s Health dating to 2007.

Findings in the Child Trends study are echoed in a similar report published Dec. 10 by the Center for American Progress, a progressive political think tank in Washington. CAP researchers Rebecca Vallas, Melissa Boteach, Rachel West, and Jackie Odum found that between 33 million and 36.5 million children—nearly half the total population of U.S. children—have at least one parent who has a criminal record.

Real-world implications for the children of incarcerated parents include a range of potential negative effects, leading authors of the Child Trends study to call for policymakers and lawmakers to step up funding and programs aimed at “reducing the trauma and stigma these children experience, improving communications between the child and the incarcerated parent, and making visits with the incarcerated parent more child-friendly.”

And Vallas, director of policy for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at CAP and lead author of the report on parents in the criminal-justice system, said, “Because these challenges affect such a large share of our nation’s children, we ignore these intergenerational consequences at our peril.”

What’s at Stake

While researchers at Child Trends acknowledge that there are few longitudinal studies of the long-term impact of parental incarceration on children, Cooper and Murphey’s analysis of existing data shows an alarming collection of “adverse childhood experiences (ACEs),” also known as immediate negative outcomes, affecting children with incarcerated parents. The list of such ACEs includes “increased risk for trauma, or toxic stress, particularly when they are cumulative,” Cooper and Murphey write.  

In addition, the Child Trends researchers cite related indicators that have potential long-term negative impacts for children. These indicators are frequently present in households where a parent is or has been incarcerated, and they render children vulnerable to fallout from a dynamic that psychologists call “loss of an attachment figure.” The report found that:

  • More than half had lived with someone who had a substance-abuse problem, compared with fewer than 10 percent of children with no parental incarceration.
  • Nearly three in five had experienced parental divorce or separation, compared with one in five children without parental incarceration.
  • More than one-third had witnessed violence between their parents or guardians, and one-third had witnessed or experienced violence in their neighborhoods. Less than 10 percent of those without an incarcerated parent had experienced either one.
  • More than one in four had lived with someone who was mentally ill or suicidal, and nearly one in 10 had experienced the death of a parent.

The major takeaway is that direct interventions are needed to help keep incarcerated parents connected in positive ways with their children, and to have programs that help families, schools, and neighborhoods to cope.

Without such programs—including community- and educator-awareness training designed to reduce shame and stigma surrounding incarcerated parents—a toxic cycle of crisis can develop, which could later lead to incarceration for the child.

For families of limited economic means, in particular black and Latino families, options for supporting children with imprisoned parents can be scarce. Murphey and Cooper estimate that black children, poor children, and children of parents with “little education” are disproportionately represented among the total population of children of incarcerated parents.

Amira Jones, 9, picks out a gift for her aunt and grandmother at Hope House's annual holiday party on Saturday. Jones's mother is in jail.  (Emily Jan)

The Scramble for Solutions

To date, the federal response to this aspect of America’s mass-incarceration machinery has been scattershot. With more than 2 million men and women locked up in jails and prisons nationwide—and with blacks and Latinos comprising a majority—the U.S is the most heavily incarcerated country in the developed world. Analyses of impact to communities, municipalities, and states has focused primarily on financial costs, which have increased dramatically since the 1980s.

Yet, with the exception of the Second Chance Act—a bill introduced in 2007 under President George W. Bush that directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to allow “aging prisoners” under certain circumstances to request transfers to home confinement, and receive grants to aid reentry—no significant legislation addressing the socioeconomic status of current or former prisoners and their family-members has emerged.

The Second Chance Reauthorization Act, which will renew and update the 2007 bill, was sponsored by Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio last summer and is awaiting a vote. Its focus now must include attention to family needs, in particular children, in the context of inmates and the recently-released, according to the bill’s sponsor.

“About 95 percent of the people in our prisons will eventually return to society. It is in all of our interests to give these individuals a second chance,” Portman and Democratic Rep. Danny Davis of Illinois argued in a recent op-ed. Davis sponsored the 2007 bill. “That may mean helping someone break a drug habit, acquire needed skills or deal with a mental health issue to hold a job, support a family and pay taxes. The spouses, children and extended family of ex-offenders deserve a second chance and if re-entry programs are successful, our communities will be safer, and taxpayers will save millions of dollars annually,” wrote Portman and Davis.

In 2013, the Department of Health and Human Services’s Administration for Children and Families convened the Children of Incarcerated Parents’ Working Group. The group, led by the White House Domestic Policy Council, is composed of representatives from HHS and the departments of Justice, Housing and Urban Development, Agriculture, and Education, as well as the Social Security Administration. It produced a solutions-oriented tool kit that was distributed to prison bureaus, welfare agencies, and residential reentry centers.

Thus, during the past 20 years, a patchwork of public and private support systems have developed to fill the space left by the dearth of direct federal funding and support for children who have incarcerated parents. The Annie E. Casey Foundation (a Next America sponsor), developed a suite of resources for funders and community and charitable organizations designed to “preserve the parent-child connection” during parental incarceration, including literacy programs, mentoring and counseling for children, and parent-child visiting programs.

Some states, too, have mounted programs and services to address the challenge of keeping children and incarcerated parents connected. In Oregon, the state Department of Correction oversees the Children of Incarcerated Parents Project, a 12-year-old public-private initiative that includes Head Start programs, mental-health services, and educational opportunities.

In Washington, Hope House, a nonprofit focusing on helping incarcerated parents stay connected with their children, offers summer-camp opportunities, as well as a recorded-books program. Executive Director Carol Fennelly, who founded Hope House in 1998 and its summer camp a few years later, said that while she’s optimistic in general about the recent attention from politicians and policymakers to the larger issue of ending mass incarceration, she has concerns that the status of children and families of the imprisoned is not receiving crucial direct support.

Most urgently needed, in Fennelly’s estimation, are educational awareness programs designed to eliminate or lessen the shame and stigma experienced by children of incarcerated parents. “We have had children in our programs who shared with me that one of the hardest parts of what they face is judgment from teachers, peers, and others in their communities,” Fennelly said.   

“Sometimes people aren’t even aware that they react negatively once they first learn that a student has a parent behind bars. But that child certainly can hear it and feel it.”

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.