Outcomes for Children of Incarcerated Parents

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Affecting Outcomes for the Invisible Casualties of War – The Children of Incarcerated Parents

On December 31, 2005, 2,320,359 people were incarcerated in the United States. Of these inmates, 107,518 were female. As of 2004, the most recent date for which statistics are available, it is estimated that there are approximately 2.8 million children of incarcerated parents. Of this number, approximately 320,000 are children of incarcerated mothers. The problem with these estimates is that at best, they are an educated guess. Most states lack uniform methods of recording the demographic information regarding an inmate’s children. Moreover, many inmates may choose not to identify their children for the fear of the possibility of adverse involvement from various child welfare agencies. A Black child in the United States is nine times more likely than a White child to have a parent in prison. A Hispanic child is three times more likely than a White child to have a parent in prison. More significantly, according to the forecasts for America’s prison population published by the Pew Charitable Trusts, prison populations are expected to continue to increase through 2011. On average, a 13% increase in the growth of prison populations is forecast. The number of female prisoners is expected to grow by 16% for the same period; this rate of growth among female prisoners will outpace the 12% increase anticipated for male inmate populations. Arguably, the number of children with incarcerated parents will increase in proportion to this projected increase in prison inmates.

It is widely accepted among criminal justice and social welfare researchers that children of incarcerated parents suffer a myriad of difficulties associated with the incarceration of their parents. The effects on an individual child may vary according to the special developmental and psychological needs of each child. The table below illustrates the developmental stages of childhood, the abilities of a child at each stage, and the possible effects of separation at any given stage. TABLE A: Developmental effects of incarceration on children at varying stages of development. Developmental StateDevelopmental CharacteristicsDevelopmental TasksEffect of Separation Infancy (0 – 2 Years)Limited perception, total dependencyDevelopment of trust and attachmentImpaired parent/child bonding Early Childhood (2 – 6 years)Increased perception, mobility, and improved memory; Greater exposure to environment, able to imagineDevelopment of sense of autonomy; independence, and initiativeInappropriate separation anxiety; Impaired socio-emotional development; Acute traumatic stress and survivor guilt. Middle Childhood ( 7 – 10 years)Increased independence from caregivers, and ability to reason; Peers become importantSense of industry; Ability to work independentlyDevelopmental regressions; Poor self-concept; Acute traumatic stress reactions; Impaired ability to overcome future trauma Late adolescenceEmotional crisis and confusion; Adult sexual development and sexuality; Formal abstract thinking emerges; increased independenceDevelopment of cohesive identity (self); Resolution of conflicts with family and society; Ability to engage in adult work and relationshipsPremature termination of dependency relationship with parent; Intergenerational crime and incarceration

Some research has indicated that, while the first two years after a child’s birth are critical for the formation of parent-child attachments, the long-term impact of separation can be reduced if the parent and child are reunited after a short time of separation. Most of the published research is not nearly as optimistic about the prospects for children of incarcerated parents. The available literature suggests that the short-term effects of parental separation can include feelings of “shame, social stigma, loss of financial support, weakened ties to the parent, changes...
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