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May 2016Vol. 17, No. 3Challenges for Children With Incarcerated Parents

Having a parent in prison adds trauma to the lives of children who may have already experienced more hardship than children whose parents have not been in prison. These traumas can lead to toxic stress in children, with many negative outcomes. A new study from Child Trends describes the effects of having a parent in prison. The authors used data from the National Survey of Children's Health, a representative sample of children under 18 in all 50 States.

According to the study, about 5 million U.S. children have had a parent in jail or prison, but there is limited research on interventions to help these children. The study found four general characteristics of children with parents in prison. The children are likely to be Black, poor, have parents with low education, and live in rural areas. The percentage of Black children with a parent in prison is nearly twice as high as the percentage of White children with an imprisoned parent. Children in families at or below the poverty level were three times as likely to have a parent in prison. If a child's parents had only a high school education or less, the children were 41 percent more likely to have a parent spend time in prison. A larger percentage of children in rural areas have a parent who spent time in prison, compared with children in metropolitan areas.

Children who had a parent in prison also had more adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and more school problems than other children. The ACEs included living with a person who had a problem with substance abuse, parents divorced or separating, domestic violence, violence in their neighborhoods, and living with an adult who was mentally ill. Elementary school children (aged 6 to 11) were less engaged in school, had more problems with school, and had more emotional problems if one of their parents had been jailed. Middle-school youth and teens (aged 12 to 17) whose parent had ever been in prison also had more problems in school.

This report concludes with a short description of programs for children with imprisoned parents in four States and Washington, DC, and an online toolkit for professionals and family members. Promising practices include:

  • Increasing communication between the child and the imprisoned parent
  • Making in-person visits to the parent in prison more child friendly
  • Helping children of incarcerated parents overcome social stigma by providing strength-based and nonjudgmental environments

The report notes the need for more research and evaluation in this area. Parents Behind Bars: What Happens to Their Children?, by David Murphey and P. Mae Cooper, is available on the Child Trends website at