After many years of advocacy, people are recognizing what it means for children to have their parents sent to jail or prison. As groups begin planning services and considering policy reforms to help children and families of the incarcerated, they need accurate information upon which to base their response. The National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated at Family and Corrections Network is addressing this need by providing relevant research information on this website. Our web pages will help people locate and understand research on (1) the characteristics of children of incarcerated parents, (2) effective programs and services, and (3) ways in which parental incarceration affects children and families.
You can help to keep these web pages useful and relevant by telling us about the research-related information you are looking for and by alerting us to new or ongoing research. Contact us at Researchandreveiw@fcnetwork.org.
Susan D. Phillips, PhD
Assistant Professor, Jane Addams College of Social Work
The Council of State Governments’ Justice Center’s newly released report on children of the incarcerated provides a wide-spanning look at issues affecting children with parents in jail or prison and recommends actions Federal policymakers can take to address some of those issues. Several recommendations pertain to research that would provide new information about the nature and extent of children’s needs, identify gaps in existing services and problematic policies, establish the effectiveness of new programs and services, and answer questions about the causal relationship between parental incarceration and children’s outcomes.
Moving forward, the Council’s recommendations will be competing with other important issues for policymakers’ time and attention, and for funding. It will take concerted efforts to win support for the recommendations. That being the case, it is important to establish priorities to guide those efforts. This commentary makes the case that the Council’s priority for research should be to obtain federal support for a national applied research network.
An applied research network would provide a “learning laboratory.” It would link together researchers, program and service providers, policy makers, and those affected by parental incarceration to develop practical knowledge, efficacious services, and effective training and dissemination practices. Partnerships of this sort have been used successfully in health care, child welfare, children’s mental health, and education. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, was established with funding from SAMSHA, is an example of a network of this nature.
In the case of parental incarceration, an applied research network would be similar in some respects to the informal network that is evolving to promote the adoption of The Bill of Rights for Children of Incarcerated Parents, but with a dynamic agenda of evaluation and intervention/policy dissemination goals. It could also incorporate and directly build upon the knowledge dissemination and training experience of the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated (NRCCFI). The NCCFI is the direct successor of the Federal Resource Center on Children of Prisoners, which was established by the National Institute of Corrections. Although the NRCCFI assumed the key functions of the Federal Resource center, the Federal government has not supported the NRCCFI since 2006. An applied research network could help assure the survival and evolution of the NRCCFI.
How does an applied research network of this nature fit with the research recommendations in the Council’s report? It is the best of all of them rolled into one.
Several of the research recommendations in the Council’s report focus on collecting national data (see examples in the side bar). For instance, the report calls for the collection of data on the lifetime prevalence of parental incarceration, needs of children of incarcerated parents, risk exposure, and use of public programs and services. It also calls for research to understand differences among various subgroups of children (e.g., those with incarcerated mothers versus fathers versus both, those whose parents serve short sentences versus long sentences, boys versus girls, and so forth). The Council’s various recommendations differ with respect to how quickly they would yield data and the nature and quality of that data, with the more rigorous and informative research taking longer and costing more. The common limiting factor is that knowledge from these studies would have to be subsequently translated into policy and practices that actually do something to change the circumstances of children of incarcerated parents.
An applied research network could also produce data on children of incarcerated parents in different locales throughout the country leading to a refined understanding of the different needs among this group of children. The difference is that it would be combined with an infrastructure for developing or modifying services in response to new knowledge, evaluating the effectiveness of those services, and for providing training and technical assistance to help others outside of the network adopt and implement new practices.
Other recommendations in the Council’s report pertain to ways of using administrative data from State agencies and from existing service programs to create a multi-site dataset that could be used for research. There are a number of methodological challenges to this, but data of this nature could provide new knowledge about the effectiveness of existing services in different contexts as well as the costs of parental incarceration. An applied research network could produce the same data, but with the involvement of people who are working in concert with service providers and interventionists to make certain the data are relevant to policy and practice.
The Council also notes the need to evaluate programs and practices. This is the area in which there is currently the biggest gap in knowledge. Many new programs have emerged to address needs of children with incarcerated parents in the last two decades, but there is virtually no information about if, or how, these programs benefit children. An applied research network could provide much needed information about “what works” and for which children.
In addition, the Council’s report includes a recommendation to identify an institution or organization to archive, synthesize, and disseminates findings from research on children of incarcerated parents as well as research from other fields that points to potentially efficacious interventions to address the needs children’s need and promote the adoption and implementation of effective interventions. A national applied research network would provide a ready-made vehicle for this.
Lastly, the Council’s report also includes a recommendation for Federally-funded demonstration projects. An applied research network would not only include demonstration projects, but also evaluate their effects on child outcomes and connect service providers with service system administrators to deal with practical issues of sustainability.
The Council of State Governments’ Justice Center report is a monumental and important opportunity to gain Federal support to help children with incarcerated parents. However, in order to capitalize on this opportunity, we need to be able to respond clearly and concisely when Federal policymakers ask, “What do you want me to do”? In terms of the Council’s research recommendations, the straightforward answer is fund the development and operation of a national applied research network.
Comments on CSG Recommendations for Research Describing Children of Incarcerated Parents and Testing Hypotheses about the Long-term Adverse Consequences of Parental Incarceration
Collect data from parents in prison as part of the National Survey of Inmates in State and Federal Correctional Facilities. Data from this survey is used in the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Report Parents in Prison and Their Minor Children. It provides data on the number of incarcerated persons who have children, the amount and contact parents have with their children before and during their current prison sentences, and children’s current living arrangements. The survey is an important source of basic information on parents in prison that should continue to be published. However, it is of limited value when it comes to understanding the consequences of parental incarceration for children because it only provides a snap shot of an isolated moment in children’s lives and does not provide data about children’s outcomes or factors influencing their outcomes.
Incorporate questions about parental incarceration into other existing national data collection activities. Examples of ongoing national data collection efforts include the Department of Health and Human Services’ National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) and the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Adding items to these and other ongoing data collection effects that have been developed with input from individuals who have been affected by parental incarceration would provide new information about child outcomes Collecting this information however, is unlikely to provide answers to questions about the causal relationship between parental incarceration and child outcomes. That limitation notwithstanding, this strategy would generate new information in a relatively short amount of time at no cost additional cost.
Conduct a prospective longitudinal study. A study of this nature could potentially answer questions about whether parental incarceration “causes” adverse child outcomes and, if so, the nature of risk pathways for different subgroups of children. This would be a costly endeavor and it would take several years to begin generating results.
Tips for getting copies of research publications:
Links are provided to many publications produced by governmental or not-for-profit agencies. To locate copies of other studies:
- Enter the title into an internet search engine such as Google Scholar.
- Request a copy through your local public library.
- Contact a researcher at a local college or university and ask for their assistance obtaining the article.
For questions or comments regarding the Research & Review section, contact email@example.com.