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February 2004Vol. 5, No. 1Children of Incarcerated Parents: Research and Resources

More than 1.5 million minor children have a parent in the criminal justice system. Although the majority of these children reside with another parent or relative, studies indicate at least 3 percent (or approximately 45,000 children) are in the foster care system. Because the number of women in jails and prisons has grown exponentially over the past decade, and women are usually the primary caretaker of minor children prior to incarceration, children of incarcerated parents will likely become a growing issue in the child welfare system. A number of recent research studies and related resources offer guidance.


  • Patterns of Criminal Conviction and Incarceration Among Mothers of Children in Foster Care in New York City ( This December 2003 study from the Vera Institute of Justice compiles data on patterns of arrest and incarceration for nearly 15,000 incarcerated mothers of children who entered New York City's foster care system in both 1991 and 1996. Findings suggest many children were removed from the home during the mothers' downward spiral of drug involvement. Although these findings are not meant to be generalized to all incarcerated mothers of children in foster care, they indicate child welfare agencies should continue to be mindful of the service needs of mothers, especially in terms of drug treatment.
  • Children of Incarcerated Parents: Cumulative Risk and Children's Living Arrangements ( This study by the Joint Center for Poverty Research (July 2002) found that where a child lives when a parent is incarcerated (e.g., with the other parent, with a relative, or in foster care) is associated with the presence of risk factors for poor developmental outcomes (e.g., parental substance abuse, parent's history of foster care). The presence of more risk factors is related to a greater likelihood of being placed in foster care. These results point to the need for child welfare agencies to identify children's risk factors and begin to address these issues through individualized service planning.
  • Families Left Behind: The Hidden Costs of Incarceration and Reentry ( This policy brief (Urban Institute Justice Policy Center, October 2003) discusses the impact of parental incarceration on children and the family unit as a whole. It emphasizes the need for social service agencies to collaborate in order to adequately address the unique needs of these families both during incarceration and re-entry.


  • "Help for Children of Prisoners" The June/July 2003 issue of Children's Bureau Express features a new article by Wade Horn, Ph.D., Assistant Secretary for Children and Families, outlining the Administration's plan to award $10 million in grants to match children of prisoners with 100,000 mentors who will develop caring, supportive relationships with them.
  • Information Packet: Children of Incarcerated Parents ( Published in May 2003 by the National Resource Center for Foster Care and Permanency Planning, this packet discusses current challenges, policy issues, and model programs, and provides references and resources related to children of incarcerated parents.
  • National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated( The Resource Center collects and disseminates information, provides training and technical assistance, and works to increase awareness among the many disciplines and service systems that come in contact with families separated by incarceration.
  • Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents ( (Editor's note: Link no longer active) The Center provides information and develops model programs on children of incarcerated parents.