“Parental incarceration can be worse for a child than divorce or death” (Turney, 2014) Behavior, health, and social challenges Parental incarceration creates multiply tiered challenges for children and their families, to include: Fear, anxiety, shame and social stigma Financial problems, to include housing, food, utilities and medical costs
Having a parent in prison or jail is linked to a greater incidence of attention deficit disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, behavioral and conduct problems, learning disabilities and developmental delays, according to a report by Kristin Turney, assistant professor of Sociology at UC Irvine, whose research appeared in the September issue of the “Journal of Health and Social Behavior”. She states: “Compared to divorce or death of a parent, parental incarceration is more strongly associated with both ADD/ADHD and behavioral problems in children.”
Nearly 3.6 million parents are under some form of correctional supervision. These parents have an estimated 2.3 million children. Alarmingly, the percentage of inmates who are parents has significantly increased by one third in the years of 2005-2010. Fathers are more than 90% of the parents incarcerated, however, mothers are increasingly incarcerated (an 87% increase for mothers, and 61% for fathers).
58% of the children with incarcerated parents were under 10 years of age, with 8 years being the mean, according to Park and Clarke- Stewart, 2001. They report findings of multiple long term effects of parental incarceration on children, to include:
1.) Incarceration and Infants: Bonding and attachment issues that are likely to lead to emotional and behavioral problems and attachment disorders in life.
2.) Incarceration and young children: Even if a bond has been developed, the disruption associated with parental incarceration is significantly likely to affect future attachment and bonding. Insecure attachments have been linked to poorer peer relationships and diminished cognitive abilities later in life. Children exhibit internalizing problems, such as anxiety, withdrawal, hypervigilance, depression, shame and guilt as well as exhibiting somatic problems such as eating and sleep disorders. Most clearly seen and the externalizing behaviors of anger, aggression and hostility towards caregivers, peers and siblings. Children of all ages are prone to nightmares, flashbacks and other PTSD symptoms, especially if they witnessed the arrest.
3.) Incarceration and School Age Children: 70% of school age children with incarcerated parents showed reduced academic performance, new classroom behavior problems and a refusal to go to school, which may be influenced by teasing and humiliation by peer groups. It was also reported that adolescents had significantly higher suspension and dropout rates than their peers.
4.) Gender Effects: According to studies, boys are more likely to exhibit externalizing behavior problems, while girls are more likely to manifest internalizing problems, such as cutting and anorexia.
Incarceration is often preceded by a stressful home and community environment, influenced by poverty, school issues, abuse, neglect, family conflict and/or parental absence. These factors can set the child on a track for learning, life and behavior problems prior to the added stressor and stigma of parental incarceration. Re- location and a change of caregivers is also disruptive.
Problems and issues due to incarceration do not end when incarceration ends. In addition to the parent’s issues around re-integrating into public life, to include housing, job, parole requirements, financial issues, the family faces the formidable task of re-establishing functional and affective relationships. The child may have developed affectionate relationships with their temporary caregivers. Being expected to love and enjoy the ex-inmate in a close relationship may add to anger and behavioral problems for the child.
Incarcerated parents may believe their child(ren) love them very much and all is well and that the relationships will resume beautifully as soon as they are released. They may also feel anger, frustration and grief when bonds with their children have weakened.
Developmental theory: Bowlby’s attachment theory and research emphasize that the lack of opportunity for consistent contact will prevent attachment. If attachment has already been achieved, separation can result in sadness and anger which will affect behavior.
Life Span theory: Development is a lifelong process. How parents and children adjust to incarceration will depend on the maturity and age of the parent and the developmental level of the child. Unexpected and unusual events can disrupt the child’s development and change the trajectory of his/her growth and development.
Risk and resiliency theories: Adaptation is dependent upon (1) the form and frequency of traumatic events and (2)protective factors that buffer the child from the event. Some children suffer permanent developmental disruptions and delays; some show less obvious effects initially, then to develop more severe challenges later. Some may adapt and cope well in the face of this trauma. The strongest predictor of whether a child will successfully adapt has been shown through decades of research to be whether the child has one person, beyond the immediate family, who is not paid to “care”, but who spends significant time with the child and consistently interacts with unconditional positive regard.
Cumulative risk model: Risks are seen as cumulative. Incarceration in itself is only one event. Children’s stresses are affected by pre and post incarceration events as well. There may be increased poverty, changes in residence and schools, alternative caregivers and stigmatization.
New research by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public School of Public Health: “…parents and children can be taught to recognize and the reduce the biologic, emotional and psychological impact of traumatic stress, bounce back when faced with a challenge, and to develop a habit of hope instead of despair. Some of the most promising methods involve simple breathing techniques as well as so-called ‘trauma-informed’ care and community approaches growing in popularity all across the country.”
GENERAL POLICY ISSUES: Connecting the systems: Fragmented services leave wide gaps, unmet needs and conflicting bureaucratic agendas. Criminal Justice System: Family services within the correctional facility need to work in tandem with social services to look at the needs of the whole family. Re-entry: Re-entry services need to be wrap-around services.
Schools: Schools need to adapt their systems to a multi-tiered educational service model, to include all children of incarcerated parents receiving services on Tier 2, (such as PBIS) whether or not they have an IEP, 504, or have behavioral challenges that have affected school performance.
Diversity: The vast majority of incarcerated persons are not Anglo-Americans. Education through all systems about cultural meanings and experiences is vital for children to feel compatibility and to bond with helpers.
Alternatives to Incarceration: Of course, all alternatives to incarceration need to be primary goals. For example, note that Portugal has closed all jails and prisons to drug users, dropped all criminal offenses for drug use and made available free full service drug rehab wrap-around treatment centers. They report that their drug use has dropped 43%. Whether this is accurate or not is irrelevant…the true issue is whether persons who desire to quit can find the resources to enable them to quit using and the supports to maintain their families while they work on recovery.
I have counseled and taught within the criminal justice system for many years now. Often, way too often, I have multiple generations of the same families incarcerated at the same time, or consecutively. We can blame the families…they may not live by middle class values and standards of behavior, however the problem and solution is not that easily swept away. We all bear some responsibility. It has long been my opinion as an educator, parent and counselor that schools continue practices that increase the likelihood of children being incarcerated, diagnosed with behavioral health issues, and/or dropped out of society as adults.
Recently, an article published in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Spring 2013 journal summarized what I have seen and learned through the years. The author, Marilyn Elias, states that, “In fact, hundreds of school districts across the country employ discipline policies that push students out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system at alarming rates—a phenomenon known as the School-to-Prison Pipeline.”
She reports that also in 2013, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., held the first federal hearing on the issue as an “important step towards ending policies that…disproportionately push minority students and students with disabilities out of schools and into jails.” Durbin told the subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, that “For many young people, our schools are increasingly a gateway to the criminal justice system. This phenomenon is a consequence of a culture of zero tolerance that …is depriving many children of their fundamental right to an education.”
He also states that suspension is being much more frequently used as a disciplinary tool, as compared with the 1970s. He concludes his decades of research by showing that “removing children from school does not improve their behavior, (but), instead, it greatly increases the likelihood that they will drop out and wind up behind bars.” According to his research, in the majority of cases, students were suspended for “being disruptive”, i.e., for having behavioral challenges in a large, noisy, stressful arena, without successful coping skills with which to manage the experiences they face.
It is important to recognize that not just children of incarcerated parents or children with disabilities experience stresses they cannot manage. Families experiencing military deployment identified 1/3 of military children at “high risk” for psychosocial morbidity.
Children in foster care, children of incarcerated parents and children whose parents are in the military often experience attachment disorders.
“Attachment disorders can result from poor parenting; abuse; neglect and insecure, interrupted, or poor foster placements. Maltreatment itself is associated with insecure attachment organization, poor emotional and behavioral self-regulation, and problems in development of the autonomous self and self-esteem. Toxic and traumatic events directly affect neural and brain development, as neuronal connections do not form well when stress hormone levels are high. These traumas also result in problems such as posttraumatic stress disorder.” (Henry, M., 2005)
1.) Increase the use of positive behavior interventions and supports. Train teachers on the use of positive behavior support systems for at-risk students, including students who are experiencing extraordinary life stressors. Do not assume that children and adolescents should have and do have the needed coping skills to deal with fear, trauma and loss. Shift the paradigm from punishment to developmental practices. In New Hampshire, the DOE Council on Special Education is working on a legislative proposal to require all schools to train and utilize a multi-tiered support system, such as Positive Behavior Intervention Supports (PBIS). See PBIS.org
2.) Require local districts and the state to compile annual reports on the total number of disciplinary actions that push students out of the classroom, identifiable by gender, age, race, and ability/disability. 3.) Create agreements with police departments and court systems to limit arrests at school and the use of restraints, such as mace and handcuffs to potentially severely violent offenses.
4.) Keep a public log and provide simple explanations of infractions and prescribed responses for the student code of conduct to insure fairness. 5.) Create appropriate limits on the use of law enforcement in public schools.
6.) Enlist and train community leaders as mentors and volunteer coordinators. Enlist upper grade students with disabilities to support lower grade students with similar disabilities. 7.) Have local schools hold annual caregiver trainings to help them advocate and effectively support their children and their school.
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Mumola, C.J. Incarcerated parents and their children. NCJ 182335. Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics Parks, R.D. and Clarke-Stewart, K.A. Effects of Parental Incarceration on Young Children. In: From Prison to Home: The Effect of Incarceration and Reentry on Children, Families and Communities. (2001) The Pew Charitable Trusts. One in 100P: Behind Bars in America. Washington, DC. http://www.pewcenteronthestates.org/uploaded Files/One%20in%20100.pdf. (2008) http://www.pewcenteronthestates.org/uploaded Ross, T., Khashu, A, and Wamsley M. Hard data on hard times: An empirical analysis of maternal incarceration, foster care and visitation. New York: Vera Institute of Justice. http://www.vera.org/publication_pdf/245_461.pdf.; (2004) http://www.vera.org/publication_pdf/245_461.pdf Moses, M. C., Does Parental Incarceration Increase a Child’s Risk for Foster Care Placement? NIJ Journal No. 255: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/nij/journals/255/parental_incarceration.html (2006 http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/nij/journals/255/parental_incarceration.html Southern Poverty Law Center: The School to Prison Pipeline. Spring 2013. Pp.39-44. Turney, Kristen. Effects of Parental Incarceration. Journal of Health and Social Behavior. September 2014