Relationships between children and their parents are the foundation on which children learn how to form and sustain healthy relationships. Disrupting those relationships—by losing a parent to incarceration, for example—can have long-term effects on children and may lead to antisocial behavior, poor school performance, and physical and mental health problems.
Recent estimates show that 2.7 million US children have a parent who is incarcerated, and more than 5 million children—7 percent of all US children—have had a parent in prison or jail at some point. African American children and children from economically disadvantaged families are more likely to experience parental incarceration.
To mitigate the risks of parental incarceration for children, some correctional agencies offer parent-child visits in prisons or jails. There are several types of parent-child visits, but many experts believe contact visits, where the child and parent can physically interact, are the most helpful in safeguarding against risk and forging stronger bonds between parents and children.
Although some evidence suggests visiting practices can lessen the trauma associated with parental incarceration, the full effects of visiting remain understudied. Our goal was to help inform researchers and practitioners about what is known about visiting practices, describe key components of visiting practices, and offer recommendations for practice and research.
Recommendations for practice
We identified several recommendations for facilitating parent-child visits. Although more visiting opportunities are needed in correctional facilities, we must also improve how visits are executed.
- Facilities should offer more opportunities for parent-child visits, especially contact visits. Because parent-child visiting can result in positive outcomes, experts we interviewed cited the need to offer contact visits more frequently in jails and prisons and to make these visits accessible to more parents.
- Programs should offer more support to children and caregivers. The support offered to children and caregivers before, during, and after visits is incomplete. Experts urged programs to offer more therapeutic support for family members and material support, such as transportation assistance and child care.
- Listen to incarcerated parents and their families about their needs and what services they find helpful. Programs should consider interviewing family members and tailoring their services accordingly. But experts noted that visits can be improved by providing professional health or psychological resources during visits.
- Practitioners and correctional agencies should provide ongoing staff training. Correctional staff members should be trained to appropriately communicate and engage with incarcerated parents, their children, and the children’s caregivers. Program staff members should also be trained to interact with children in an age-appropriate manner.
- Practitioners and correctional agencies should understand how families function and work with families experiencing trauma and stress. Staff members should be trained in alternative interventions. All families are different and experience different levels of dysfunction, so programs should understand that visits may not always be the best intervention for families.
- Practitioners should engage with research and evidence to inform the continuous quality improvement of parent-child visits. This can be done by reading the literature on parent-child visits and through program evaluations or assessments. Additionally, programs should always be improving data collection and evaluation efforts to better document outcomes.
Recommendations for research
We also proposed the following research goals to expand the knowledge base on parent-child visiting practices in prisons and jails.
- Research the prevalence of and variance in visiting practices. The field would benefit from a clearer working definition of parent-child visits, including the components that make up a visit. Future research should assess parent-child visiting practices in all 50 states to document the prevalence of different visiting methods.
- Examine features of parent-child visits and evaluate their impacts. Studies on visiting practices are small and relatively unrelated, and few empirical studies identify the features that make visits effective. More research is needed on different visiting approaches’ effects on parent and child outcomes before carrying out interventions.
- Generate new knowledge to show the measurable impact of parental incarceration on children’s development, school achievement, and adult success. Factors such as the child’s age and gender, the quality of the parent-child relationship before incarceration, the presence of a supportive caregiver, and the stability and quality of the child’s support network play a role in how incarceration affects children. More research is needed to account for these and other influential factors that may exacerbate separation effects or buffer children from stress associated with parental incarceration.
- Develop additional measures and improve data collection. Because data collection is difficult, more evaluation studies are needed to build the evidence base. The field would also benefit from developing additional measurements, such as an observational tool to measure the quality of parent-child interactions.
- Strengthen relationships between practitioners and researchers. Securing practitioner and correctional staff buy-in will help researchers design effective studies that produce useful information for the field. Research findings should be disseminated more broadly and strategically to policymakers and practitioners.