Commentary – May 2009
Susan D. Phillips, PhD
Assistant Professor, Jane Addams College of Social Work
In a nutshell, available research suggests that, collectively, children of incarcerated parents are rightly considered an at-risk population, but (1) not all of these children are at risk, nor (2) are those who are at risk all at-risk for the same reasons.[2, 3] The differences among children with incarcerated parents matter greatly when it comes to selecting the services that are most likely to effectively address a given child’s needs. At the same time, all children whose parents are sent to prison deserve to be treated with the same compassion we show children whose parents are absent from their lives for other reasons such as death, divorce, illness, or military service.
Researchers have been studying children with parents in prison for decades.[4, 5] They believed initially that boys whose fathers were sent to prison became involved in delinquency because they learned antisocial attitudes and behaviors from their fathers. Researchers now recognize that sundry child (e.g., being male), parent (e.g., substance abuse), family (e.g., poverty), and community characteristics (e.g., access to drug markets) play a role in the development of delinquency. They also recognize that positive factors can operate in the lives of even the most at-risk children to protect them from or help them overcome the risks they are confronting.[6,7,8,9,10]
Researchers also once believed that parental incarceration was simply a phenomenon that just happened to co-occur with other problems (e.g., poverty, family disruption, child maltreatment, and so forth) and that it was these other problems rather than parental incarceration that placed children at risk for adverse outcomes. More recent research shows that, in fact, parental incarceration contributes to children experiencing some of these risks.[1, 11,12,13,14,15,16]
Because it is not feasible for researchers to follow parents around to observe them committing criminal acts, early research on parent criminality relied on reports of parental arrest as an indicator of parents’ criminal behavior. Some researchers differentiated between arrests for misdemeanors (less serious offenses) and arrests for felonies (more serious offenses). The latter often carry prison sentences. This means that much of the research on parent criminality is actually research on parental arrest and/or incarceration. This research, however, did not differentiate between risk factors that contributed to parents’ involvement in the criminal justice system involvement and those that were a consequence of their criminal justice system involvement.
Nonetheless, this body of research suggests that if you divide all children into only two groups – those whose parents have been arrested and those whose parents have not – there is a better chance of finding a child who will become involved in delinquency or develop other problems in the group whose parents were arrested.[17-31] Findings from this research are sometimes referred to by people seeking funding or making the case for services or policy reforms. It is not uncommon for these findings to be sensationalized and for important nuances to be glossed over. As a result, there is a persistent misperception that children of incarcerated parents are all destined to become “the next generation of inmates.” Because of the harm this belief does to children, it is important to understand what research on children of incarcerated parents does and does not tell us about this population of children.
First, children whose parents are sent to prison are NOT doomed to become “the next generation of inmates”. When researchers say that children whose parents become involved in the criminal justice system have a greater likelihood of getting in trouble with the law, it does not mean that the majority, many, or most will grow up to commit criminal acts. Suggesting that this is the case in order to win support for policy reforms and services harms children of incarcerated parents by perpetuating the negative stereotype that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”.
Second, race matters. Although children from all economic strata and all ethnicities experience parental incarceration, parental incarceration is 7 times more prevalent among African American children compared to White children and 2.4 times more prevalent among Hispanic children. The differential risk for parental incarceration among African American and Hispanic children is intricately linked with the institutional and structural racism and the concomitant discrimination these groups have historically faced in the criminal justice system, housing, education, health care, and employment. Because of these and other systemic disparities, a disproportionate number of people of color live in communities with concentrated social problems that are associated with high levels of incarceration. Paradoxically, high levels of incarceration help to perpetuate these problems.
Discussions about children of incarcerated parents often raise the specter of intergenerational incarceration, but fail to acknowledge the intergenerational failure of our social institutions to address the underlying social problems that are associated with high incarceration rates. Nor, for that matter, do they acknowledge the intergenerational inadequacy of funding for services for children and families. The phenomenon of parental incarceration and its consequences for children, families, and communities cannot be fully appreciated, nor can it be adequately addressed in isolation from these considerations.
Third, it is not clear whether incarcerating parents causes delinquency, but there is evidence that it increases children’s exposure to risk factors that are associated with delinquency. Researchers once thought of parental incarceration as simply a proxy for other problems that tend to be associated with crime and incarceration. Research clearly shows, however, that for some children the incarceration of a parent means loss of contact with a parent who was involved in their care and who contributed to their support. While this research provides evidence that parental incarceration contributes to children experiencing risk factors that are associated with delinquency, researchers have not yet been able to determine if parental incarceration causes delinquency.[29, 35]
Fourth, children of incarcerated parents are not all the same. Over a decade ago, Denise Johnston, MD, the Director of the Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents, called attention to the fact that there is no risk factor that is universal among children of incarcerated parents. In fact, parental incarceration is not even the same experience for all children if we consider variations in the reasons parents are incarcerated, the length of their sentences, their prior criminal histories, their degree of involvement with their children prior to their current prison sentence, and the different stages of development children may be in while their parents are serving time.
Some children of incarcerated parents are at particularly high risk for adverse outcomes because of the high number of risk factors operating in their lives. The single most consistent finding in research on children whose parents experience incarceration is that as a group they are exposed to more risk factors than other children (some of which may be a consequence of their parents’ incarceration).[29, 34, 36,37,38,39] This is important because even among children who do not have an incarcerated parent, the likelihood of becoming involved with criminal authorities grows exponentially as the number of risks they experience increases.[40, 41] To be clear, this does not mean that most, the majority, or many children whose parents go to prison live in multi-problem households. But, research suggests that those who do are a particularly high risk group. These families often need a variety of services and obtaining these services is often made difficult by the fragmented nature of service delivery systems.
While some children are at high risk because of the many problems their families face, other subgroups are at risk for various different reasons. For instance, a study of teens whose mothers had arrest histories (not all of whom served time in jail or prison), found that there were four identifiable subgroups of children with very different risk exposures. One group (about 50 percent of the teens) was living in households in which there were very few, if any, major risk factors. The remaining 50 percent fell into three different categories: (1) teens with histories of physical and sexual abuse, (2) teens with multiple parents/parent figures that had substance abuse or mental health problems, and (3) teens living in single-parent households in extreme poverty who were not receiving adequate supervision. These findings need to be confirmed in studies of other groups of children, but they suggest that no one service will adequately address the needs of all children.
Finally, research answers empirical questions, not moral questions. Thus far, this commentary has focused on research as it relates to the possible relationship between parental incarceration and adverse child outcomes. There is another framework for considering the needs of children of incarcerated parents – a procedural justice framework. The salient question from this perspective is not “are children of incarcerated parents at risk for delinquency and, if so, why?”, rather the salient question is “why punish the children?”.[42, 43] This framework, which is implicit in The Bill of Rights for Children of Incarcerated Parents, suggests the need for systemic reforms to make parental arrest and incarceration less noxious for children – not because doing so will necessarily reduce the chances of children developing serious problems – but because children are a vulnerable group who are dependent upon adults for their safety and well-being. When children are separated from their parents for other reasons such as military services, divorce, death, or serious illness, we show compassion and concern and try to ease their distress. Morally, children who are not able to be with a parent because that parent is in jail or prison deserve the same.
As a group, children whose parents are sent to prison are rightly considered an at-risk population. Accordingly, service planning and policy reforms would do well to include mechanisms to link children on an as needed basis with the various prevention and intervention services that already exist in the education, mental health, health, child welfare, and juvenile justice systems. At the same time, it also suggests that children’s experiences related to the arrest and incarceration of parents have consequences for children (for example, social stigma) that are distinct from other risks that may also be present in their lives. Providers in existing service systems would do well to explore and address these unique aspects of children’s experiences of parental arrest and incarceration.
Most importantly, research suggests there is no magic bullet. No single service or policy reform will adequately address the needs of all children with incarcerated parents. Moreover, services cannot be effective if children and families do not receive them. At present, only a fraction of parents in prison who might benefit from substance abuse treatment receive treatment, leaving their children vulnerable to parent and family problems associated with addiction when their parents leave prison. Similarly, only a fraction of parents take part in parenting programs while incarcerated. Other systems have an equally poor record of reaching children. For example, a large proportion of children who have mental health problems do not receive treatments that could be beneficial to them.[e.g., 44]
We should celebrate the fact that so many groups now recognize that sending parents to prison has consequences for children, but it is not yet time to rest. We cannot settle simply for developing new services that only address isolated problems or which only reach a small number of children and families yet leave the recalcitrant social problems associated with high levels of incarceration unaddressed.
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38. Dallaire, D. H. (2007). Incarcerated mothers and fathers: A comparison of risks for children and families. Family Relations, 56, 440-453.
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