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June 2018Vol. 19, No. 5Attachment Behaviors in Children With Incarcerated Fathers

A recent episode of the Poverty Research and Policy Podcast series, hosted by the Institute for Research on Poverty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, focuses on attachment behaviors in children with incarcerated fathers. The episode, "Attachment Behaviors in Children with Incarcerated Fathers," features Julie Poehlmann-Tynan, professor of human ecology at the University of Wisconsin and author of the blog Kids With Incarcerated Parents.

The podcast features a study published by Dr. Poehlmann-Tynan and colleagues that describes children's relationships with their caregivers, which are usually the parents or family members left at home while a parent is incarcerated. The researchers went to the children's homes and spoke with the caregivers and assessed the home environment. They also observed the children's visits with their incarcerated fathers and applied their findings to the jail-prison observation checklist, which was developed by Dr. Poehlemann-Tynan to capture children's attachment behaviors and emotions during visits.

Dr. Poehlmann-Tynan found that children showed heightened attachment behaviors with their caregivers during visits to the jail or prison (e.g., often wanting to hold hands or sit on the caregiver's lap). She also found that during these visits, many of the caregivers exhibited positive behaviors that facilitated children's connections with their incarcerated parents. Caregivers would say things such as, "Show daddy what you just learned how to read,"  "Show daddy what song you just learned," or "Why don't you blow daddy a kiss?" However, there also were visits where the caregiver and the incarcerated parent argued in front of the child or the caregiver had no interest at all in the visit, which led to a more negative atmosphere.

The type of visit—face-to-face contact or noncontact—also affected the child's behavior. Face-to-face contact visits often occurred in prisons, while noncontact visits, with the child on one side of a Plexiglas barrier and the incarcerated parent on the other side, were the most common for jails. Children were most likely to display negative behaviors, such as showing signs of distress or anger directed at the caregiver who brought them, during noncontact visits. Regardless of the visit type, most children reacted with happiness when they saw their parent, which emphasizes the importance of maintaining a visiting schedule that helps keep the child connected to their incarcerated parent.

Dr. Peohlmann-Tynann also discusses how to help families stay connected to incarcerated individuals, especially when there are young children involved and how caregivers' attitudes play a major role in facilitating jail or prison visits and making them a positive experience for the children of incarcerated parents. In addition to addressing visits, Dr. Peohlmann-Tynann noted that law enforcement should consider how they interact with the children of the individuals they arrest, as witnessing the arrest of a parent can have lasting negative effects. She suggests additional training for law enforcement on how to handle these sensitive situations.

A transcript of the podcast is available at (145 KB).