The Effects of a Parent's Incarceration
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The Effects of a Parent's Incarceration

This is an essay on the challenges children face when they have one or both parents in jail. It examines the physical, psychological, and social effects on these children.

A child comes home from kindergarten to find the front yard blockaded by police cars and her mom is in the center of it all. Another child may arrive home with no one home except an older brother who is frantically trying to figure out where daddy went. And maybe in the same city, just a few blocks away, one more adolescent is being beaten by the grandfather he was placed with when his parents were arrested. These types of circumstances happen everyday all over the United States, and oftentimes the children are not told where their parents are. Children who have incarcerated parents are strongly, and sometimes permanently, affected emotionally, mentally, and physically.

There are many minors who have, or have had, one or both parents in jail. And, yet this problem is increasing rather than diminishing because of a lock of action. Right now, there are about seven million children whose parents are under some form of correctional incarceration (Adalist-Estrin). Forty-two percent of these children are between ages ten and seventeen (ibid). A study done by the Universities of California and of Chicago showed that twenty-seven percent of the mothers who had been incarcerated between 1990 and 2000 had a child place in foster care (Moses). Three-fourths of the children had been placed in foster care before their mother’s first period of incarceration (ibid). According to BJS Policy Analyst, Christopher J. Mumola, an estimated 721,500 state and federal prisoners were parents to 1,498,800 children under the age of eighteen in 1999 (Mumola). He reported that twenty-two percent of all minor children with an incarcerated parent were under five years of age (ibid).

Despite these staggering numbers, very little in comparison to what could take place is done to help these children cope with their experiences. There is the Amachi program to match children with adult mentors (Knowles). In addition, Marilyn Gambrell began the No More Victims program in Houston Texas, which offers dozens of services for children with incarcerated parents and their families (No More…). Gambrell, a former parole officer, began the program soon after seeing a little girl being beaten by the grandmother she was placed with the same day of her mother’s arrest (ibid). Still, there is so much more that could be done, even if it were just making No More Victims a nation-wide effort. The results of a failure to aid minors can be devastating, long lasting, and oftentimes permanent.

The emotional strains a child may endure from this situation can sometimes be too much to bear. Trust becomes a barrier for many of these kids and they do not know who to look to for help. One girl at sixteen years of age said, “If ever anything is stolen from a desk or a locker, those of us with parents locked up get blamed” (Adalist-Estrin). Oftentimes children who come from split families due to a parent’s crime feel like there is nobody who will trust them because of the parent’s error (ibid). They also tend to mistrust their ‘screw-up’ parents , as well as, whomever acts in loco parentis because of the actions they have seen performed by the adults in their lives. These kids also feel little reason to trust the adults around them because of the lies they are told about the crimes and punishments of the parents (ibid).

Some children become introverted and unwilling to show any emotion. Feelings of vulnerability are common among minors with incarcerated parents when talking about the subject, so they often avoid it by lying, or refusing to join in conversations or support groups (Adalist-Estrin). They feel alone and abandoned, resulting in further isolation. They also tend to avoid discussing their emotions about a parent or caregiver in fear of upsetting the other (ibid). Some adults and anyone uncomfortable with the subject will accept a child’s withdrawal from conversation as a lack of need to talk, making the isolation more prominent (ibid).

Oftentimes a minor will become depressed or angry in this time of turmoil, and unable to bear their anxiety, which can lead to violence. Many of these children experience behavioral changes in themselves such as rejecting adult limits and authority, sexual risk-taking, drug and alcohol abuse, aggression, and violence (Adalist-Estrin). Several incarcerated parents have histories of sexual and physical abuse, familial incarceration, and drug use, and; often it happens that these traits become inherited from parent to child due to their home environment (Johnson). Young children many times exhibit behaviors such as hostility toward siblings and caregivers, and anger (Mentoring…). Most often, external changes in behavior due to the incarceration of a parent are more prominent in males (ibid). These changes in behavior are not to be taken lightly and could have permanently scarring results.

Minors with parents in correctional facilities often bear mental setbacks as well. Education is often an under-looked aspect of these kids’ lives. In the classroom setting, children become aware of social stigma, potentially influencing their ability to learn and function in school and among peers (Johnson). Oftentimes the children do not even fully comprehend the situation in which their parents find themselves. Though not all are told about their parents’ whereabouts, most children do better if told the truth and when there is contact between child and parent (Adalist-Estrin). This is shadowed by the preconception that the child will be less scared if they do not know all the facts and many of these kids will never know about the incarceration of their parents. It is a shame to see these kids treated with discrimination because of their mothers’ and fathers’ faults (Muse).

There are so many societal problems in the world and the growing population of parents in jail is certainly one of the biggest problems. With this number escalating, more and more children are becoming victims of injustice and suffering. They become altered physically, emotionally, and mentally, and these changes do not take long to occur. The emotional vices in the life of a child born to an incarcerated parent can be life altering, permanent, and always painful. The physical detriments these children undergo are absolutely appalling and are growing worse everyday. Moreover, the mental aspects can drastically change a child in numerous ways, such as causing the child to have no self-confidence, and a poor education. More needs to be done to help these children because the youth are the future of tomorrow.

Works Cited

Adalist-Estrin, M.S., Ann. “Providing Support to Adolescent Children with Incarcerated Parents.” Prevention Researcher Apr. 2006: 7-10. Sirs Knowledge Source. SIRS.

Johnson, Elizabeth I. “Youth with Incarcerated Parents: an Introduction to the Issues.” Prevention Researcher Apr. 2006: 3-6. Sirs Knowledge Source. SIRS. 5 Mar. 2008

Knowles, Mary. “Mentors Help Fill Void for Children of Prisoners: Sixteen-Year-Old Destiny Rose Last Saw Her Father as a Free Man a Decade Ago. She’Ll Be 21 When He is Released From Sumter Correctional Institution in Bushnell.” Orlando Sentinel, The. 4 May 2007. EBSCOhost. EBSCO. 5 Mar. 2008.

“Mentoring Children of Prisoners Programs.” Nonprofit Development Institute. 2004. Nonprofit Development Institute, Inc. 3 Apr. 2008 .

Moses, Marilyn C. United States. National Institute of Justice. Department of Justice. Does Parental Incarceration Increase a Child’s Risk for Foster Care Placement? Nov. 2006. 5 Mar. 2008.

Mumola, Christopher J. United States. Justice Statistics Bureau. Department of Justice. Incarcerated Parents and Their Children. Aug. 2000. 5 Mar. 2008.

Muse, Daphne. “Parenting From Prison.” Mothering (1994): 98-105. Sirs Knowledge Source. SIRS.

“NO MORE VICTIMS, INC.” NO MORE VICTIMS, INC. 19 Aug. 2007. 16 Mar. 2008 .

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Comments (1)

Well researched and well written.