Abounding Needs: Children of Incarcerated Parents

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Incarceration has become a norm in our society. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that prison population exceeded a record-breaking 2 million last year. Considering higher rates of incarceration, we can easily deduce that more parents are incarcerated now than ever before. The children of these parents are undoubtedly affected. Sadly, these children are often considered a collective group with a particular set of needs-- that is, basic needs like food, clothing and shelter (Johnson and Waldfogel, 2002). However, each child of an incarcerated parent has emotional and psychological needs specific to his/her situation that must be met. Meeting these needs will help ensure positive growth and development.

Many factors must be considered when assessing the behaviors of children with incarcerated parents. Was the child exposed to parental criminality prior to the parent's incarceration? Did the child exhibit emotional instability or have behavior problems before the parent's incarceration? In Doing Time on the Outside, Braman argues that "[Children] made fatherless by incarceration are not only more likely to be abused, to live in poverty, and to burden their extended family but also more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system themselves, contributing to a cycle of abuse and neglect across generations (p 93)." Having an antisocial or incarcerated parent was one of the strongest predictors of violent or serious delinquency in adolescence and young adulthood (Eddy and Reid, 2001)." Children with incarcerated parents often exhibit behaviors that stem from feelings of anger, anxiety or fear, to name a few. Socioeconomic status, parent education, sexual abuse, substance abuse and physical abuse are a few of the many factors that affect how children cope with parental incarceration.

According to Johnson and Waldfogel (2002), "The needs that children have, and where these children are placed during a parent's incarceration-whether with the other parent, with a grandparent, relative, or in foster care-may have important implications for how children fare during a parent's incarceration." The fact is that the majority of children do not enter the child welfare system when a parent becomes incarcerated. Each state is primarily responsible for mandating how these children are cared for and what resources and benefits are made available to caregivers. Most families experience financial difficulties with the incarceration of a parent.

Income from working parents or spouses who become incarcerated is lost. Any welfare benefits mothers received before incarceration is not transferred to grandparents or relatives who become caregivers; and, there is no guarantee that these caregivers will be offered financial assistance (Hairston, 2002).

In Children with Parents in Prison, Seymour and Hairston tell of a study conducted in a women's correctional facility in a Midwestern state in 1998. The study of the facility's visitation program charted thirty-one program participants and twenty-seven who were on the waiting list for the visitation program. Researchers found that the women who were participating in the visitation program reported more contact with their children. The women participating in the program also reported having a positive relationship with their children. Because visitation policies and procedures vary among correctional facilities, there are instances where inmates are not allowed to have visitors.

So exactly what efforts are being made to help children with incarcerated parents? The most common approach is to provide these children with mentors. Mentoring programs are abundant in the U.S. Many are organized by non-profit or faith-based organizations. The U.S. Congress devotes millions of dollars each year to support existing and establish new mentoring programs. Mentoring programs such as Amachi Big Brothers Big Sisters matches volunteers with children who have been enrolled by a parent or...
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