Children of Incarcerated Parents in the United States: What We Know and What We Still Need to Learn

By: Megan Sullivan*

This is the first of a three-part series on children of incarcerated parents. My thanks to Justice Strategies for allowing me the opportunity to participate in this series.

I come to the topic of children with incarcerated parents from several vantage points. First, I was ten years old when my father was arrested and received a two-to-five-year sentence for larceny. I know firsthand that while the relationship between a parent’s incarceration and a child’s outcomes is not obvious or proscriptive, there are important reasons to pay attention to this relationship.

I also come to this topic as an educator. I have taught college for 20 years; I have been a literacy coach for two large urban school districts; and I have presented dozens of workshops to K-12 teachers. I know well the various ways a child’s education and development can be affected by what happens outside of the classroom. Finally I come to this topic as a scholar; I wrote one book on the topic (Parental Incarceration: Personal Accounts and Developmental Impacts, co-edited with Denise Johnston, Routledge Press, 2016);  co-edited one special journal issue; and wrote a middle grade reader for children of incarcerated parents (Clarissa’s Disappointment, Shining Hall Press, 2017). Along the way I have written a tip-sheet for caregivers and articles for teachers and librarians.

All this is to say I have a deep commitment to the topic. In this series I plan to speak to three things: what we know about children of incarcerated parents; how teachers, counselors and others can help them; and how we can support caregivers. Along the way I would welcome your thoughts and feedback.

Let’s start with the numbers. In 2010 it was estimated that there were 2.7 million minor children with an incarcerated parent in the United States and that at least 10 million children have experienced parental incarceration in their life-times. We know children of color are disproportionately affected: 1 in 9 are African American; 1 in 28 are Hispanic; and 1 in 57 are white. At least one-half of these children are under ten years old. We also know that the majority of people in prison are parents.

The numbers tell us quite a bit, but a brief history yields additional information. For as long as we have had incarceration, there have been children of incarcerated parents; yet we can trace the research and advocacy that folks have been engaged in to see how their interests have shaped what we know, and do not know, about children in 2017. In her essay “The Wrong Road: Efforts to Understand the Effects of Parental Crime and Incarceration,” (2006), Denise Johnston argues persuasively that the earliest research on children was conducted by people in the field of criminology. Perhaps not surprisingly, these researchers focused on intergenerational criminality. Johnston states that beginning in the 1960s researchers began to wonder about how they could help prisoners and their families, but much of this early research was ignored. She notes that later advocacy work coincided with the women’s movement and focused on the experiences of incarcerated mothers. These advocates led others to focus on children but also helped solidify an approach that focused on parental incarceration rather than life for children before, during and after a parent’s incarceration. According to Johnston this and other research has helped us understand some things about children of incarcerated parents, but has also disallowed us from asking important questions about whether it is parental incarceration itself that affects children, or if there are more complex factors at play (e.g. maybe it is the risks related to criminal involvement and incarceration that most impact children rather than the fact of incarceration itself). Johnston’s essay is important because it forces us to consider that what we know about children of incarcerated parents may have more to do with what we think we understand rather than what is statistically or empirically true.

In 2010 researchers Julie Poehlmann and others weighed in. In sum, they acknowledged that there is evidence that children who have incarcerated parents often have a host of problems such as negative social and academic outcomes, poverty, etc., but that because we lack large-scale studies that look at children over time, we cannot tell for sure exactly how children are impacted. They urge larger scale and multi-disciplinary examination.

So where are dedicated families, advocates, practitioners and researchers to go from here? There are several points that are now well established and that can help inform our work with children:

  • Parental incarceration is considered an adverse childhood experience, or as an experience (like abuse, divorce or trauma) that can affect a child long after the actual event that occurred;
  • Children who have parents in prison or jail are at risk for a host of difficult situations and experiences (including poverty, less safe neighborhoods, abuse, difficulty in school, and physical and emotional problems);
  • We need more large-scale longitudinal studies of children.

My own feeling is that children who have parents in prison or jail may very well be impacted. However, we cannot presume to know exactly how they will be impacted. Thus, what is needed is more guidance for working with children across a range of possible outcomes and scenarios. Rather than assume, for example, that all children are impacted the same way, we might discover that children who had little contact with a parent before he or she was incarcerated may have different needs than a child whose custodial parent goes to jail or prison. We may find that prison visitation helps children but so do neighborhoods that support all children, rather than just those whose parents are locked up. Maybe we’ll find that because parental incarceration is an adverse childhood experience we need to watch carefully the academic progress of children. In this reading we will not assume children with parents in prison will fare poorly, but only that they might. We can offer strategies for teachers and counselors based on this possibility.

One thing a more nuanced understanding of parental incarceration may tell us is that while all children with incarcerated parents have a parent in prison or jail, not all children will experience this separation the same way.

 

*Megan Sullivan is the Associate Dean for Faculty Research and Development and Director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Teaching & Learning at Boston University; she is also the author of the award winning children's book Clarissa's Disappointment. She was awarded the Anthony Award in Prose from Between the Lines Literary Journal for her essay “My Father’s Prison,” and an Honorable Mention from the San Francisco Chapter of Pen American Women for her essay “The Bikini Cut.” She lives in Boston with her husband and their two Black Labradors.

Megan Sullivan

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