What are the effects of Parental Incarceration on Children?

Children are often considered the “hidden victims” of incarcerated parents. Once the parent gets behind bars, few think of the problems a child may have in dealing with this new life event and what it can do to their emotion, physical, social, educational, and financial well-being. Many of these children fall through the cracks of the system without being given a platform to be heard or acknowledged.

Many problems arise due to involvement within the criminal justice system. These challenges can be a psychological strain, antisocial behavior, issues at school, economic hardship, and even criminal activity. It’s hard to predict what will happen to a child with an incarcerated parent as research findings are mixed.

Since the “War on Drugs,” in the ’80s, the rate of children with incarcerated mothers jumped to 100 percent and fathers at 75 percent. It is estimated that 11 percent of all children may be at risk. Having a parent in incarceration is the only thing to consider for stressful situations for children. The whole range of the criminal justice program needs to be considered.

  1. Arrest.
  2. Pre-trial detention.
  3. Conviction.
  4. Jail.
  5. Probation.
  6. Imprisonment.
  7. Parole.

Each child is unique and handles things differently. Research has established that parent’s incarceration can prove threatening to the overall well-being of the child. 

  1. Child Criminal Involvement: There is some concern that a parent’s incarceration could lead to intergenerational criminal behavior. One statistic indicates they are six times more likely to become incarcerated themselves. This seems to be higher with mothers that are incarcerated than fathers, but many times, these risk factors are difficult to understand or predict.
  2. Psychological Problems and Antisocial Behavior: Depression and aggression have been mixed and varies with gender, race, age, and even the family situation. Some antisocial behavior falls into criminal acts or persistent dishonesty. This can also include mental health issues and even drug use.
  3. Educational Attainment: There is a constant association between educational attainment and parental incarceration. Though more research needs to be done to provide a clearer picture, this is still a huge risk factor for children of incarcerated parents.
  4. Economic Well-Being: Many children have restricted financial resources when they have an incarcerated parent. Many times, the family’s income is 22 percent lower than normal and 15 percent after the parent’s re-entry into society. Children of incarcerated parents face a host of disadvantages like being less likely to live in a two-parent home or even have stable housing. 

With all these considerations, enhancing communications between the correctional facilities and the families is a good way to ensure the child’s safety net for the future and even help the re-entry of the incarcerated parent. These are critical to a child’s well-being, whether it be emotional, financial, antisocial, or even educational. Improving the system to hear and see the child’s point of view is necessary for their psychological and physical development.

Martin, Eric. March 2017. Hidden Consequences: The Impact of Incarceration on Dependent Children. https://www.nij.gov/journals/278/pages/impact-of-incarceration-on-dependent-children.aspx


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