This is the first article in a six-part series about young people with siblings in prison.
Over 5 million kids in the United States currently have or have had a parent in prison. That works out to about one in 14 American children—a majority of whom are under age 10. Broken down by state, children with incarcerated parents can represent 3 to 13 percent of the population, according to “A Shared Sentence,” a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The unusually intense stress that these children face has been well documented and studied. That’s mostly due to researchers’ emphasis on the parent-child relationship when analyzing incarcerated populations—and how little support is available for those left-behind children who are forced to stand by as their primary role models, caregivers, and providers are put behind bars.
But incarceration also affects a separate number of children who have been isolated from another profound relationship: They are the children with siblings in jail or prison—and much less is known about them. It isn’t even clear how many of them there are.
One recent U.S.-based analysis of grief and coping among “non-offending siblings,” as the literature often refers to them, brands them as the “most often overlooked” family members of adjudicated youth. The study’s author, sociologist Katie Heaton, detailed the levels of daily “emotional stress” siblings may experience, including “bullying by other students who discovered their sibling’s imprisonment, adjusting to new household roles and routines, complex feelings of ambivalence related to their sibling’s safety, visiting their brother or sister, and having their sibling return home after an extended period away.”