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2001 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 7, No. 1
January 2002

Understanding and Supporting Foster Children With Incarcerated Parents

Good child welfare workers try to learn all they can about neglect, abuse, and the many other conditions that affect the children and families they serve. Given the increasing number of children with parents in prison entering the child welfare system these days, it should come as no surprise that workers want to know more about this population. Specifically, they wish to understand the extent of this trend, how children are affected, and how to support them.

Numbers of Children

There is a lot we don't know about foster children with parents in prison. In a 1994 national survey, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services identified "incarceration" as the presenting problem of the primary caregiver in 4% of the cases of children and families who received child welfare services (Seymour, 1998). Unfortunately, this does not translate easily into reliable, verifiable numbers of children. There is little other aggregate data on this population, so we don't really know how many foster children fall into this category.

We do know the three basic routes through which these children enter the child welfare system:

  • As a result of abuse or neglect prior to the parent's incarceration,
  • As a direct result of the primary caregiving parent's arrest, or
  • As a result of disruptions in the living arrangements (most often with a relative) made during a parent's incarceration (Wright & Seymour, p. 14).

But again, not enough data has been collected nor enough research conducted to tell us which of these avenues is the most likely route of entry into the system, or which types of children are likely to enter by which route.

Effects on Kids

We do know with certainty that parental incarceration has an impact on children. Yet the specific effects of incarceration can be difficult to isolate from other challenges and risk factors. For example, most children of parents in prison have been subjected to a variety of risk factors before the parent's incarceration. These include poverty, family involvement with alcohol and other drugs, intrafamilial violence, previous separations, and crime.

Cynthia Seymour, General Counsel for the Child Welfare League of America and an expert on children with incarcerated parents, notes that "the extent to which a child will be affected by parental incarceration depends on a large number of variables, including the age at which the parent-child separation occurs, length of the separation, health of the family, disruptiveness of the incarceration, child's familiarity with the placement or new caregiver, strength of the parent-child relationship, number and result of previous separation experiences, nature of the parent's crime, length of the prison sentence, availability of family or community support, and degree of stigma that the community associates with incarceration" (Seymour, 1998).

Independent of these factors, the separation inherent in parental incarceration is almost always a traumatic experience for the child. Children with parents in prison often exhibit many of the responses we see in other foster children who have experienced trauma. These include:

Developmental delays. Instead of devoting energy to important age-appropriate developmental tasks (e.g., walking, talking, social development) children must focus deal with the parent's absence and the difficulties this may pose.

Maladaptive coping strategies. These include regression (soiling and clinging), emotional numbness, and antisocial behaviors.

For a listing of additional negative reactions to parental incarceration, see the sidebar, Child Reactions to Parental Incarceration. It is important to note "that these reactions are interconnected, as feelings may spring from thoughts, and behaviors may result from feelings" (Wright & Seymour).

According to the Child Welfare League of America, children who have parents in prison are at increased risk for poor school performance, dropping out, gang involvement, early pregnancy, and drug abuse (Slavin, 2000).

The children of incarcerated mothers may be at a higher risk of trauma than the children of incarcerated fathers. According to Pat Vincitorio, a prison social worker at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh, "Most children of incarcerated moms have only known the mom as the primary caregiver. The children of incarcerated moms suffer the trauma of abandonment, loss, and devastation at a greater intensity than if their father goes to prison. In fact, I believe the child of an incarcerated mom is at the highest risk level of all children in North Carolina."

Statistics collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics support the assertion that the incarceration of a mother may have more severe effects on children. In 1997, mothers (58%) in state prisons in the U.S. were much more likely than fathers (36%) to report living with their minor children prior to arrest. Thirty-one percent of the mothers in prison had been living alone with their children, compared to 4% of fathers (BJS, 4). Certainly, to the children from these households, the loss of a mother is deeply disruptive.

Regardless of whether the inmate is a mother or a father, prison employees can attest to the negative effect parental incarceration has on children. "Many times, kids are victims as much as the actual victims of the crimes these men have committed," says Reverend Billy Stewart, Chaplain at the Avery Mitchell Correctional Institution in Spruce Pine, NC. "They go through grief that I think is different in some ways from other grief. They have to explain to their classmates at school and the people they know that their dad is in prison, and they have to put up with the negative things that get said about them, their dads, and their families as a result."

What You Can Do

There are many things child welfare social workers can do to support foster children with parents in prison:

Understand and acknowledge your own feelings about incarcerated parents and substance abusers (see sidebar, Understanding Your Feelings). Unless you take this step, you may undermine your own efforts to help. Understand the child may be grieving. Explain the stages of grief to the child in an age-appropriate way.

Alleviate the child's uncertainty. When a parent is incarcerated, a child's basic life issues are called into question—she will want to know what has happened, when she will see her parent again, what will happen next, and a thousand other things. Answer her questions as best you can.

Reassure the child, especially if she is young, that the parent did not leave the child because of something the child has done.

Honor and preserve the child's connection to the parent. Regardless of the parent's past actions, he or she plays a central role in the child's world and influences her well-being and future development. Maintain this connection by every means possible, including visits, mail, and phone calls.

References

Mumola, C. J. (2000). Bureau of Justice Statistics special report: Incarcerated parents and their children. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice [August 2000, NCJ 182335].

Seymour, C. B. (1998). Children with parents in prison: Child welfare policy, program, and practice issues. On-line <http://www.cwla.org/programs/incarcerated/so98journalintro.htm>

Slavin, P. (2000). Children with parents behind bars. Children's Voice, 9(5), 4-37.

Wright, L. E. & Seymour, C. B. (2000). Working with children and families separated by incarceration: A handbook for child welfare agencies. Washington, DC: CWLA Press.