At least 1 in 14 U.S. children have experienced parental incarceration in their lifetime

Parental incarceration is most prevalent among black, poor, and rural children.

Research has long found that children who have (or have had) a parent behind bars tend to suffer from problems including poor health, behavior challenges, and grade retention, but it’s been difficult to suss out the degree to which those issues are attributable more generally to other realities common in communities with high incarceration rates. “It can be challenging to disentangle the effects of parental incarceration from … other risk factors, such as extreme poverty,”  David Murphey and P. Mae Coper, authors of Child Trends Report, write. “Complicating matters further, parental incarceration can also exacerbate these associated risk factors, through loss of income, for example.”

Photo from Children of Promise - NYC's Sponsor-a-Child Program, where children of prisoners are given the opportunity to connect with their incarcerated parent and explore new educational opportunities, express themselves creatively and emotionally, build meaningful relationships and gain new experiences. 

Photo from Children of Promise - NYC's Sponsor-a-Child Program, where children of prisoners are given the opportunity to connect with their incarcerated parent and explore new educational opportunities, express themselves creatively and emotionally, build meaningful relationships and gain new experiences. 


The new report strives to do that disentangling and identify any outcomes in children that are uniquely associated with parental incarceration. And while much of the report’s findings on health outcomes and social relationships are inconclusive, one of the few risk factors that does seem to have a direct association with parental incarceration has to do with the kids’ education. Children of all ages were significantly more likely to have problems in school, while those ages 6 through 11 had lower “school engagement.” Children were considered to have school problems if they had ever repeated a grade or if their school had contacted an adult in the household in the past year about issues they were having in school. Meanwhile, “school engagement” was rated on a scale from zero to three, with children receiving a single point for usually or always meeting each of three conditions: demonstrating an interest and curiosity in learning new things; caring about doing well in school; and completing all required homework.

The researchers reason that the social stigmas associated with having a parent who is, or has been, in prison might help explain these educational challenges. “Having an imprisoned parent is an example of a loss that is not socially approved or (often) supported, which may compound children’s grief and pain, leading to emotional difficulties and problem behaviors.” A 2013 paper out of the University of Minnesota’s Children, Youth & Family Consortium also suggested that the loss of financial support resulting from parental incarceration can undermine the “family’s housing stability, the child’s living arrangement, and subsequently the child’s school stability.” Children with a parent in prison tend to struggle with chronic absenteeism, too.

Read the full article from The Atlantic here.