Children of Incarcerated Parents: When Love Requires Change

Today more than half of our prison population in the United States has one or more children at home. Since 1981, the number of children with an incarcerated parent has risen by almost 80 percent. The problems associated with mass incarceration run deep in our society, and we now face a question of how to support and protect 1.7 million youth and their families. This complex issue requires a complex solution – one in which layers of institutions are highly involved in finding new and creative ways to serve our vulnerable neighbors.

Unfortunately mass incarceration has not been a topic that many of us have heard preached from the pulpit or discussed in the fellowship hall. But justice demands a response, and it is now time to make this issue a priority. While the following will seek to create discussion about a group of children who are often deemed a “left behind” generation, it can only scratch the surface of the broader juvenile justice issues of our time.

The profile of an average child with one or more incarcerated parents should stir concern. The average age of a child with an incarcerated parent is eight years old, while approximately 22 percent of children are under the age of five. Statistically, these children also come from predominately lower income families. Racial disparities among children of incarcerated parents are also alarming. African American children are nine times more likely to have a parent who is incarcerated than white children, and Hispanic children are three times as likely. Our stigmatizations around mass incarceration, as a result, have done little to foster and support healthy child-parent relationships among racial minorities in the U.S. Therefore, we cannot talk about finding a solution without looking at the problem of race relations within our society.  

Emotional Impact

The difficulties for families impacted by incarceration often begin as soon as the arrest takes place. For a child, seeing a parent arrested can have the same emotional impact as if they were seeing their parent assaulted. When a parent is placed in a facility, distance from their children is rarely taken into account, and physical separation can be intense. Parents can be placed in detention centers hours away from their children – and in many cases, federal prisons can be states away. Stories of families report the difficulty of getting to facilities that are traditionally built in the middle of nowhere. One report described a facility that was hours away from the nearest airport. If families do have the means and flexibility to stay connected during incarceration, visitation rooms do not have the guarantee of being child-friendly. For many children, trauma can be furthered by seeing the new living conditions of a parent, only further vanquishing the possibilities of meeting together where nurture can take place.

Emotionally, children across the board “lack feeling connected and worthy”, as phrased by a report from Justice Strategies, a non-profit research organization. Stigma unfortunately materializes in schools, communities and churches. It can manifest in bullying, isolation, or the conception that children are destined to follow in their parents footsteps. A child may doubt the love of their parent, and the commitment of their relationship, whilst finding it difficult to see adults as trustworthy in general. Many are forced to grow up faster due to their new situations at home; robbing kids the chance to just be kids.

Economic Impact

Economic stress is another major influencer on the well-being of children with incarcerated parents. The loss of a parent’s income can create a major burden on the remaining parent or caretaker. In addition, arrests often involve fees – from hiring a lawyer to sentencing fines. If families do attempt to stay together, it is a costly endeavor. Travel expenses can be massive, as are hidden fees, like collect calls for dollars on the minute, or first time visitor fees. The Arizona Department of Corrections, for example, has instituted a $25 dollar charge for adults who wish to visit inmates in 15 of their prison complexes. As prisons continue to seek opportunities for profit, the pressure on families only becomes more burdensome.

For a child, the visceral and emotional impacts of having an incarcerated parent are great. A driving factor of this can be an undermined sense of stability at home. When a parent is incarcerated, a child’s familiar routine ends. It’s very easy for their educational experience or extra circulars to be disrupted. They may have to move in with a new caretaker, or a foster family, which can create an entirely new norm. The financial hardship, as previously mentioned, can also account for stress and new pressures. The relationship between selling drugs for profit, for example, is a disturbing trend that has been measured among children of incarcerated parents.

Opportunity for Action

We see the need for justice arise as opportunity is unfairly taken from many of these kids. The expectation that they will fail before they reach adulthood writes them off as unworthy of our resources and support. With so many diverse and overwhelming challenges in front of them, many children with incarcerated parents do fall into dangerous patterns. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Children who experienced parental incarceration at age 6 or younger were more than twice as likely to be involved in the criminal justice system as young adults”. This trend can be broken and should be broken, but it requires all of us to rally around these kids.

A notable area where improvement is needed is in schools. School phobia, bad grades and academic problems come in much higher rates for children of incarcerated parents then for those without. Lack of structure and support at home, accompanied by mental and emotional distractions are a recipe for hardship for students. Teachers and schools need to give students the extra support they need in order to not fall behind. In many respects, this involves educating teachers and facilitators on how to meet these children in their time of need. After school programing, and the potential for older role models could also provide much needed comradery, and create new thought patterns for how children view adults, school, and their potential in general.

This complex issue requires a complex solution...

 Another barrier to success these children face is in the prevalence of mental health problems. For what children with incarcerated parents often go through, mental health counseling and therapy do not play nearly as large of a role as they should. PTSD is extremely common among youth, as well as anxiety and depression. According to Professor Kristin Turney at the University of California, “children with incarcerated parents were three times more likely to suffer from depression or behavioral problems than the average American child, and twice as likely to suffer from learning disabilities and anxiety.” Without proper diagnosis and treatment, children’s actions and thoughts can lead to self-harm, further cheating them of their ability to flourish.

We need government to have a stronger role in working to reverse what some human rights advocates have deemed, “the greatest threat to child well-being in the U.S.” Two tracks for reform are currently available to law makers: reducing the number of people in prison through sentence reduction and changing the hearing process for non-violent offenders. The Second Chance Reauthorization Act, a piece of legislation that has previously helped lower recidivism (relapsing into criminal behavior), would look at putting rehabilitation at the forefront of prison reform. Prioritizing reintegration with society as an alternative to long sentences under mandatory minimums would allow more families to be reunited. Additionally, the allowance of Family Impact Statements in courts better help judges determine what sentencing would be best for a community. These statements allow convicted individuals to let the court hear and consider what their responsibilities are to their families. As a country, we need to start somewhere, and these two avenues present an opportunity for bipartisan support and collaboration.

The Church has a great opportunity be an advocate for children of incarcerated parents. Recognizing that every person, no matter how old, is worthy of dignity, the potential to succeed, and deep love, we can pioneer opportunities for improvement. The first step involves recognizing those among us who need our support. This means breaking down the assumption that conversations about mass incarceration don’t belong in the church – or that there are not those in the pews who hide in shame. We need to actively ensure that support is in place at the government, court, and local level so that children and families do not struggle alone as they go through the process of sentencing and imprisonment.

We have named a matter of public justice because we have put a face to the struggles of 1.7 million members of our society – a number too big to ignore. The conversations we need to be having should answer the question of how we reinstall potential into a child who feels that they have none. The answers we come to will be wide in scope – from advocating for sentencing reform to driving a family to a prison so that they might visit a loved one. The beauty of the problem is that there is room for all of us to use our gifts and strengths, and in the face of this issue, not one of them goes unneeded.

As we continue to learn even more about children of incarcerated parents and the problems associated with mass incarceration, let us put a face to this generation of kids. Let us break down any stigmatizations that we might have in order to be fully present in this area of hardship. Children of incarcerated children matter, and all of us can be champions for them and for their families.

-Jenny Hyde is currently living and working in Washington, DC. She is a recent alumna of Gordon College, where she received her degree in International Affairs. Photo via Texas Jail Project.