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Broken Bonds: Understanding and Addressing the Needs of Children with Incarcerated Parents

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Document date: February 01, 2008
Released online: February 12, 2008

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

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Over 1.5 million children in this country currently have one or both of their parents incarcerated. In addition to the trauma of this loss, these children face tremendous uncertainty in their living arrangements, relationships with loved ones, and family financial stability. Short-term coping responses and heavy stigma are common, both of which may lead to long-term emotional and behavioral challenges. This report reviews the current research on children with incarcerated parents and offers recommendations on how to reduce the negative impact of parental incarceration, with particular attention to the role of supportive relationships with the incarcerated parent and other adults.

The physical and emotional well being of children can be threatened or harmed in a myriad of ways, not the least of which is the absence of a parent from their lives. While parental absences can occur through marital separation or even death, the removal of a parent through incarceration creates unique stressors in a child’s life, many of which go unnoticed to the outside world. The stigma and shame associated with parental incarceration makes identifying children of incarcerated parents difficult for schools and social service agencies. Children of incarcerated parents are also subject to significant uncertainty and instability, as many incarcerated parents repeatedly cycle in and out of prison. Moreover, while most children have a means of personal contact with a parent who is absent because of marital separation, the barriers to communication between a child and his or her incarcerated parent are tremendous and are complicated by the fact that caregivers may be reluctant to facilitate such contact.

The needs of these children have become more pronounced as the nation’s prison population, particularly the population of female inmates, continues to grow. Since the early 1970s, the number of adults incarcerated in state and federal prisons in the United States has continuously risen, placing the current incarceration rate at 501 per 100,000 residents (Sabol, Couture, and Harrison 2007). This number represents an increasing portion of the total population behind bars, and thus a larger share of children each year is affected by parental incarceration. The most recent estimates (based on 1997 data) indicate that on any given day, roughly 1.5 million children in this country have a parent in prison (Mumola 2000), yet very little is known about the characteristics and needs of this unique population. What is the nature of their home environments before, during, and after incarceration? What barriers exist to maintaining a healthy parent-child relationship during incarceration and what are the benefits of reunification after a parent’s release? What emotional and behavioral challenges do these children face, and what can charitable organizations, practitioners, and policy makers do to address those challenges?

With these questions in mind, this report seeks to develop a better understanding of this distinct population of children through a review of empirical research on the topic. We begin by illustrating the scope of the problem, quantifying the number of children with adult parents who are incarcerated in prisons—as well as those under other forms of criminal justice supervision—as well as identifying specific demographic traits shared by these children. We then describe the changes that children of incarcerated parents will likely encounter as they negotiate new living arrangements, family relationships, and financial circumstances. This descriptive information is followed by a review of empirical studies that have examined the emotional and behavioral correlates of having an incarcerated parent. The results of these studies are used to support the identification of protective factors and programs that may mitigate the impact of parental incarceration on children. We conclude with a series of recommendations for how this unique and vulnerable population can be better served.

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Topics/Tags: | Children and Youth | Crime/Justice | Families and Parenting

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