Over 2.7 million children in the U.S. have parents who are incarcerated, and only about a third of them visit their mothers and fathers in jail or prison, according to a new policy brief by the non-profit advisory group, “Building Bright Futures.”
The report, authored by public policy expert Traci Sawyers, M.A., reveals that parental incarceration is on the rise nationwide, as is the collateral damage to children caught up in the traumatic experience. In 1990, an estimated 1 in 125 U.S. children had a parent in jail or prison; now, that figure is a staggering 1 in 28.
Reflecting the persistent racial disparities in incarceration rates, black children are eight times more likely than white children and three times more likely than Hispanic children to have an incarcerated parent, with about one in nine black children living with at least one parent in jail or prison — a rate that has more than quadrupled in the past 25 years.
In most cases, it’s the mother, not the father, who is the primary caregiver before entering prison, often for non-violent misdemeanors (more women are in jail for drugs than for any other crime), and the number of incarcerated women is rising nationwide. Eighty percent of incarcerated women are mothers, the report found, and more than half (57 percent) of those women have children younger than age nine.
“That really speaks to the need to think about community alternatives to incarceration,” says Sawyers.
Isolation, shame, and ‘toxic stress’
Most children in these situations are informally cared for by other relatives who may feel stigmatized by a family member’s jail time, so their needs may not come to the attention of social services or local schools. Additionally, unlike children dealing with the death of a parent, children with an incarcerated parent generally experience a great deal of shame and isolation.
“When a parent dies, a child is usually surrounded by love and support. When a parent goes to prison, people turn away and often don’t want to associate with the family anymore,” the report says.
Sawyers says more data is needed about these families and the challenges they face. Many of these children lead troubled lives at home even before a parent’s arrest and departure deepen what psychologists call “toxic stress.” Incarceration is not a single or discrete event but a dynamic process that unfolds over time, the report says, and children experience at least three levels of cumulative trauma and toxic stress.
The first level involves exposure to adverse social and environmental conditions in the home prior to a parents incarceration. This includes everything from substance abuse and instability, to poverty and violence. Children exposed to such conditions are already at a heightened state of vulnerability, the report says, and the trauma of witnessing a parent’s arrest — the second level of toxic stress — only compounds the problem.
“If weapons are drawn, particularly, any kind of physical struggle — they may see the use of pepper spray — and that whole piece can be extremely stressful and traumatic for a child,” Sawyers says. She cites a previous study of incarcerated parents that estimated that more than two-thirds were handcuffed in front of their children, and more than a quarter reported that police drew their weapons in the presence of their children.
The third and final level of toxic stress stems from the trauma of losing a parent, combined with the chaos and instability that follows. According to the report, a child with one parent in prison is 50 percent more likely to end up in foster care. If both parents are incarcerated, that risk rises sharply. These children are also more likely than their peers to suffer from mental health problems including attention deficit disorder, learning disabilities, and antisocial behavior.
Strikingly, past research has shown that children in homes affected by parental incarceration have significantly shorter telomeres — a cellular marker of aging — than those in stable households. Telomeres are the caps at the end of chromosomes that keep them from shrinking when cells replicate; much like the plastic tips of shoelaces, telomeres prevent DNA from ‘unraveling.’ Shorter telomeres are linked to higher risks for heart disease, obesity, cognitive decline, diabetes, mental illness and poor health outcomes in adulthood.
According to the report, parental incarceration can be a “source of stress proliferation in which social stressors experienced by one family member can have lasting consequences across generations.” Given the pervasive racial inequities in incarceration, these transgenerational effects could potentially contribute to long-standing racial disparities in health and disease. Additionally, parental incarceration has been shown to contribute to long-term social and economic problems such as homelessness and unemployment.
However, Sawyers say it is possible to mitigate some of these adverse consequences by intervening in the lives of incarcerated parents and their children to promote and strengthen positive relationships. More frequent visitation between children and their incarcerated parents has been shown to foster healthier development among children, reduce recidivism rates among inmates, and decrease the likelihood that the child will end up in the criminal justice system.
Unfortunately, several challenges constrain the ability of incarcerated parents to maintain close family ties—not the least of which is geography. Prisons are often located far away in rural areas, creating significant barriers to visitation for low-income families who cannot easily afford the travel costs. Prison administrators also place a range of restrictions on visitations, limiting the length and frequency of contact, and can charge excessive fees for telephone calls. For some incarcerated parents, their parental rights are terminated after the child is placed in foster care for a specific period of time.