New Report Reveals What Happens to Children When Parents Are Locked Up
Date:  11-06-2015

Researchers found that five million children in America had at least one parent locked up at any given time
From the report Parents Behind Bars: What Happens to Their Children?

By David Murphey and P. Mae Cooper

October 2015

Children do not often figure in discussions of incarceration, but new research finds more than five million U.S. children have had at least one parent in prison at one time or another—about three times higher than earlier estimates that included only children with a parent currently incarcerated. This report uses the National Survey of Children’s Health to examine both the prevalence of parental incarceration and child outcomes associated with it.

Based on our analyses, we found that more than five million children, representing seven percent of all U.S. children, have ever had a parent who lived with them go to jail or prison. This proportion is higher among black, poor, and rural children. Our figure of more than five million is almost certainly an underestimate, since it does not include children with a non-residential parent who was incarcerated. This is important new information. In 2007, the most recent point in-time estimate, 1.7 million children, or just over 2 percent, had a parent (including non-residential parents) currently in prison. Previous research has found connections between parental incarceration and childhood health problems, behavior problems, and grade retention. It has also been linked to poor mental and physical health in adulthood.

After accounting for effects associated with demographic variables such as race and income, we found that parental incarceration was associated with:

  • a higher number of other major, potentially traumatic life events—stressors that are most damaging when they are cumulative;

  • more emotional difficulties, low school engagement, and more problems in school, among children ages 6 to 11; and

  • a greater likelihood of problems in school among older youth (12 to 17), as well as less parental monitoring.

    While the best long-term solution may be to reduce reliance on imprisonment as a sanction for some categories of criminal behavior, there may also be ways to mitigate the harm of parental imprisonment for children. Research on interventions for children with incarcerated parents is limited, but work so far suggests that reducing the trauma and stigma these children experience, improving communications between the child and the incarcerated parent, and making visits with the incarcerated parent more child-friendly may alleviate some of the negative effects of this separation.

    Read the full report here.