Footprints: Child Risk Antidotes for Children of Incarcerated Parents

Topics: Attachment theory, John Bowlby, Interpersonal relationship Pages: 21 (6127 words) Published: March 27, 2013

Steven C. Mitchell

M.A. in Human Service 2012, Lincoln University of Pennsylvania (UNITED STATES)


This study focused on five mentoring pairs (adult/child) who participated in a mentoring program for children of incarcerated parents. Children ranged in age from eight to 15 years. Data were collected through bi-weekly journal interviews conducted with children, caregivers, and mentors over a five-week period to assess caregiver-child and incarcerated-parent relationships, contact with incarcerated parents, and children’s behavior problems. Qualitative evaluation questioning involved effectiveness of intervention on cognition, self-worth, and esteeming issues. Although some children viewed their incarcerated parents as positive attachment figures, other children reported negative feelings toward or no relationship with incarcerated parents. In addition, assessments of children ten years old and older revealed that having no contact with the incarcerated parent was associated with children revealing more feelings of alienation toward that parent than with children who had contact. Children’s behavior problems were a prime concern, often occurring within a relational context or in reaction to social stigma associated with parental imprisonment.

Keywords: attachment, mentoring relationships, parental incarceration.


Murray & Farrington (2008), as supported by Shalafer & Poehlmann (2010) stated that children of incarcerated parents experience increased risk for antisocial outcomes, internalizing symptoms, and academic difficulties. Furthermore, it is stated that over 2.5 million children have a parent in state or federal prison; children of incarcerated parents often experience significant disruptions in their family relationships because of changes in caregivers and separation from imprisoned parents. The majority of these children are very young; over half are less than ten years old; more than 20 percent are younger than age five (Jucovy, 2006).

Some have even experienced the unique trauma of seeing their parent arrested and taken away; with a parent’s incarceration, their connection to a central adult in their lives has been severed. While their parents are incarcerated, the children might reside with their other parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, or in a foster home. Some are shifted from one caregiving arrangement to another. These caregivers are likely to be living in poverty and lack the personal resources necessary to meet the children’s needs; these needs can be complex (Jucovy, 2006).

Increasing research on the specific challenges faced by children of incarcerated parents is becoming evident; these studies suggest that they suffer from a particular form of grief and loss that comes from having a complex mix of anger, sadness, shame, guilt, and depression. As a result, they often act out inappropriately with classroom behavior difficulties and low academic performance. Unsurprisingly, a high percentage ends up in serious trouble as well. According to a U.S. Senate report, children of prisoners are six times more likely than other children to be incarcerated at some point in their lives (Jucovy, 2006; Barron-McKeagney & Woody, 2007, D’Souza, 2007). Without effective intervention strategies, these children will become involved with the criminal justice system.

The number of children at risk is certain to grow; the nation’s prison population is increasing by approximately six percent each year. Significantly, the number of incarcerated females is increasing at an even faster pace, more than doubling since 1990. Women, far often than men, are a child’s custodial parent before entering prison. As a result, increasing numbers of...
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