Unintended victims: Children of incarcerated parents

In the 1980s there were 500,000 Americans in prisons. Today that number is 2,300,000.

Lost in the discussions over harsher sentencing, the ethnic imbalance, or the pros and cons of for profit prisons, are the innocent and unintended victims of the system – their children.

Nationally, more than 2.6 million children in the U.S have an incarcerated parent. In Pennsylvania, currently 81,000 kids have a parent in prison. African American children are 7.5 times more likely to have an incarcerated parent, and in urban regions like Philadelphia and Camden it’s not uncommon for most of the students in a classroom to have someone in their family who is or was in prison. 

It’s easy to get lost in the numbers or the debate over our judicial system. And it’s easy to lose sight of what it means for children.

But we shouldn’t. The price is too high emotionally for the kids and in dollars and cents for society. The effects can last a lifetime:

  • The children are three times as likely to have behavioral problems or depression. 
  • They are at two times the risk of being diagnosed with a learning disability such as ADD/ADHD.
  • Children with incarcerated fathers are more likely to be held back a year in elementary school.
  •  Studies have demonstrated that 23 percent of children with incarcerated fathers were at risk of being expelled or suspended from school compared to 4 percent of the general population.
  • Children are at greater risk of eight physical health problems, including: asthma, depression, PTSD, and anxiety.

The entire process, from the arrest of a parent to the long term separation is often traumatic, leaving deep emotional scars. Sadly, the children suffer silently in most cases. After all, who wants to admit that their mom or dad is in jail?  Either they are told by other family members to keep it a secret or they themselves are ashamed.

People who break the law must pay the price. If that means serving time in prison, than they must. But that doesn’t mean their children should also pay.

Just because a person is in prison, doesn’t mean they don’t love their kids. Even more important, their kids still love them.

I see this daily working with parents who have been incarcerated. They’ve made mistakes, broken the law, and have seen their families broken apart because of it. They are desperate to maintain a relationship with their children while in prison, and anxious to build healthier parent-child relationships upon release.

I visited a special program in the Lehigh County jail where fathers are permitted to have contact visits with their children if they complete a 10 week parenting course.  I’ll never forget the expression of awe and love on the face of a dad who spent the entire visit in a rocking chair with his newborn baby daughter or the dad having a serious discussion with his adolescent sons. Fathers who participated in the program had a lower recidivism rate than those who didn’t, according to prison officials.

Studies have shown that outcomes for children of incarcerated parents directly correlate to the quality and quantity of time spent with their parents in prison and are dependent upon the cultivation of healthy connections within their families. 

This is especially noteworthy since incarcerated parents, particularly mothers, are much more likely to lose their parental rights due to the Adoption and Safe Families Act which sets a 15 month timeline for termination of parental rights, breaking ties with their children permanently.

If you know of a child with a parent in prison, connect with love and without judgement.  The Sesame Street Toolkit for Children with Incarcerated Parents is an excellent free resource.

But things really won’t change without changing the laws impacting arrest protocols and imprisonment of parents with dependent children. To help in this effort, you can contact the Pennsylvania Prison Society.

It’s time the children stop suffering alone.