Children of Incarcerated Parents

Tip Sheet for Providers: Supporting Children Who Have an Incarcerated Parent

Download the PDF (2 pages).Tip Sheet for Providers: Supporting Children Who Have an Incarcerated Parent

This tip sheet was written by youth who have or have had incarcerated parents for service providers who work with them or may interact with them. The purpose is to provide practical advice for how to help the 2.7 million children and youth who have at least one incarcerated parent.

In June 2016, the federal government hosted a listening session with youth from across the country who have or have had an incarcerated parent. The listening session brought together 19 youth, ages 15 to 23, with a diverse range of experiences to discuss the challenges they had during their parent's incarceration and their ideas for how the government could better support them and their families. This tip sheet is a product of that listening session.

WHO CAN USE THIS TIP SHEET? This tip sheet was developed for service providers, who may be staff at youth serving organizations, including community-based and faith-based; advocacy agencies; or state and local government agencies such as departments of labor, housing, corrections, and education.

From the youth: What you should know.

  • We rely on our own inner strength
  • We often grow up too soon taking on responsibilities:
    • Taking care of younger siblings
    • Getting jobs to help with family finances
    • Negotiating services such as healthcare and mental health
    • Navigating systems and avoiding negative attention from Child Welfare or Human Services who might take us or our siblings away
  • We love our parents, even though they have made mistakes. We miss them during:
    • Big events like having the parent there for holidays and graduation
    • Small activities like having the parent there to help with homework and going to our sporting event
    • Everyday opportunities for having parent as a role model
  • We are misjudged by many and negatively judged because of our parent(s) or our parent’s actions
  • We are sometimes told we will turn out like our parent(s) and we are constantly fighting against and running from that judgement
  • We have different experiences than other youth whose parent is absent for another reason like divorce:
    • Not being able to pick up the phone and talk to our parent any time we want
    • Not being able to hug our parent during a visit
    • Being judged differently and feeling shame and stigma because of those judgments
  • We have different experiences even from each other:
    • Living arrangements before the incarceration
    • Relationship status with our parent before the incarceration
    • Being told the truth or lies about the incarceration
    • Involvement with child welfare during the incarceration
    • Changes in financial stability during the incarceration
  • We are not different from other youth in that we are young people, too, with the same needs and wants:
    • To be loved
    • To have support
    • To be successful
    • To have friends
  • We do not have control over the situation, which is difficult:
    • We don’t know what to expect with the incarceration process or when visiting our parent in a facility
    • We don’t know with any certainty when we will be able to talk to or see our parent again

From the youth: Changes we would like to see.

  • Increased opportunities to visit. Our parents are often incarcerated in facilities that are far away. Whenever safe and appropriate we would like for courts and correctional agencies to place our incarcerated parents in facilities closer to family. If that’s not possible, courts, corrections, and community-based organizations could consider providing additional transportation assistance to make visitation easier.
  • More frequent and less expensive opportunities to communicate. The cost of phone calls from prison can be too expensive, making it difficult, or even impossible, for us to communicate with our parents. Corrections could consider reducing these costs and allowing for longer calls. Organizations serving youth could consider ways to help pay for or share the costs of calls, which would allow us to talk to our parents more often.
  • Better communication between corrections and schools. We would like our parents to have the opportunity to participate in parent-teacher conferences. Corrections and courts should consider allowing flexibility for our parents to participate by phone or video technology, which the schools could help coordinate. Additionally, we often receive unexcused absences from school for going to visit our parents during the school day, even when we do not have other options. Schools could consider providing excused absences, and corrections could consider providing proof of visitation.
  • Improved sharing of information about our parents. During the arrest, pretrial, trial, incarceration, and reentry processes, our parents are frequently moved around without letting us know. Courts, corrections, and probation should consider ways to ensure that we and our families have the most up to date information possible on the location of our parents.
  • Better understanding about the impact of mandatory reporting rules. We frequently choose not to share personal details about our parents or our lives with people or organizations who we fear will report that information to child welfare. Youth serving organizations should be aware of our hesitations and find safe, comfortable ways for us to share what is happening in our lives.
  • Friendlier interactions when visiting. We often feel like we are the ones who have done something wrong when we go to visit our incarcerated parents. Most prisons have strict rules about who can visit, the number of visitors, what we can bring, what we can wear, etc. These rules can be unclear, cause our families stress, and sometimes even result in a cancelled visit. Youth serving organizations can help us understand the rules and prepare for our visit. Corrections can make the rules easier to find and provide training for staff that reminds them that family visits are supposed to be a positive experience for all.

» Return to the overview of the Listening Session Summary page.
» Return to Youth Perspectives page.

Tip Sheet for Youth: Youth Supporting Fellow Youth Who Have an Incarcerated Parent

Download the PDF (2 pages).Tip Sheet for Youth: Youth Supporting Fellow Youth Who Have an Incarcerated Parent

This tip sheet was written BY youth who have or have had incarcerated parents FOR youth who have incarcerated parents. The purpose is to provide words of support and encouragement.

In June 2016, the federal government hosted a listening session with youth from across the country who have or have had an incarcerated parent. The listening session brought together 19 youth, ages 15 to 23, with a diverse range of experiences to discuss the challenges they had during their parent's incarceration and their ideas for how the government could better support them and their families. This tip sheet is a product of that listening session.

You are not alone. Here are some things many of us experience:

  • We rely on our own inner strength
  • We often grow up too soon taking on responsibilities:
    • Taking care of younger siblings
    • Getting jobs to help with family finances
    • Obtaining services such as physical and mental healthcare
    • Navigating systems and avoiding negative attention from Child Welfare or Human Services who might take us or our siblings away
  • We love our parents, even though they have made mistakes. We miss them during:
    • Big events like having our parent there for holidays and graduation
    • Small activities like having our parent there to help with homework and going to our sporting event
    • Everyday opportunities for having our parent as a role model
  • We are misjudged by many and negatively judged because of our parent(s) or our parent’s actions
  • We are sometimes told we will turn out like our parent(s) and we are constantly fighting against and running from that judgement
  • We have different experiences than other youth whose parent is absent for another reason like divorce:
    • Not being able to pick up the phone and talk to our parent any time we want
    • Not being able to hug our parent during a visit
    • Being judged differently and feeling shame and stigma because of those judgments
  • We have different experiences even from each other:
    • Living arrangements before the incarceration
    • Relationship status with our parent before the incarceration
    • Being told the truth or lies about the incarceration
    • Involvement with child welfare during the incarceration
    • Changes in financial stability during the incarceration
  • We are not different from other youth in that we are young people, too, with the same needs and wants:
    • To be loved
    • To have support
    • To be successful
    • To have friends
  • We do not have control over the situation, which is difficult:
    • We don’t know what to expect with the incarceration process or when visiting our parent in a facility
    • We don’t know with any certainty when we will be able to talk to or see our parent again

Advice for Youth from Youth who have or have had an incarcerated parent:

  • Seek out resource lists on websites from government or other trusted organizations
  • Reach out for help if you need it
    • Look to a trusted adult such as youth group leader, school counselor, or mentor for help
    • Advocate for help that is relevant to your situation — let them know what you need
    • Ask for help finding a counselor who is experienced with issues of incarceration
  • Look for programs that have specific services for youth with an incarcerated parent and are familiar with your challenges and needs
    • Look for programs that offer transportation to help you visit your parent
    • Find after-school programs, weekend activities, mentoring, or other programs
  • Find ways to cope with the challenges of having an incarcerated parent
    • Get involved with activities like sports or athletics, community service volunteering, etc.
    • Find ways to express yourself like writing, art, music, design, video/filmmaking, etc.
  • Know that you are not alone — 2.7 million youth have an incarcerated parent
    • Find a support group to be able to talk with others going through the same thing
  • Know there are opportunities to be an advocate
    • Channel your emotions (which might include anger and pain) into making a positive change through advocacy
    • Work with organizations to suggest that they include youth with incarcerated parents on planning committees and boards
    • Develop well thought-out messages when requesting change in a policy or procedure that affects you
    • Be part of efforts to create and expand visiting and mentoring programs
    • Advocate for financial backing and funding for effective programs

» Return to the overview of the Listening Session Summary page.
» Return to Youth Perspectives page.

Resource: Change in Parent-Child Relationships Before, During, and After Incarceration

This brief uses data from the Multi-site Family Study on Incarceration, Parenting and Partnering to examine several aspects of fathers’ relationships with their children after their release from incarceration, including residential arrangements, financial support, and the quality of the relationships the fathers reported having with their children.

Report: The Experiences of Families During a Father’s Incarceration

This report uses data from a longitudinal impact study to illustrate the experiences of 1,482 incarcerated fathers and their intimate or coparenting partners

Report: The Federal Interagency Reentry Council: A Record of Progress and a Roadmap for the Future

This report highlights the achievements and future goals of the Federal Interagency Reentry Council and features links to multiple resources related to reentry, employment, healthcare, children of incarcerated parents, special populations, and collateral consequences.

HHS and DOJ host listening session with youth who have an incarcerated parent

The effects of incarceration are felt far beyond prison walls: children, families, and communities also experience the consequences of incarceration.

Tip Sheet for Prison/Jail Staff and Volunteers: Supporting Children Who Have an Incarcerated Parent

Download the PDF (2 pages).

Prison and jail staff and volunteers play an important role in facilitating visits and helping make visits a positive experience for children with incarcerated parents. Visits from family members can help promote strong family ties and have been shown to decrease recidivism.1 For children, visits are an important way to maintain the relationship with their incarcerated parent, which can have important implications on a child’s behavior and mental health.2 Staff and volunteers are the first and last individuals that children see in the facility; their support of family visits can set an important tone that parent-child relationships are valued and important.

Common Toxic Stress of Children of Incarcerated Parents

Many children with incarcerated parents have had multiple adverse experiences in their lifetime, which may or may not be related to their parent’s incarceration. For example, when looking at the children of incarcerated parents in Arkansas, it was reported that 40 percent of children had been present at the time of their parent’s arrest and 27 percent of arrests were instances where a weapon was drawn.3 These experiences can be very traumatic for children and may cause them to feel uncomfortable around law enforcement.

In addition, children with incarcerated parents may be struggling with other challenging experiences, such as financial hardship resulting from a primary provider becoming incarcerated4 and families having to pay for expensive legal fees.5 Many have been exposed to violence in their homes and in their communities6 and have lived with a parent with a mental illness or history of substance abuse.7

Children with incarcerated parents may also experience social and institutional stigma. They may feel shame or embarrassment about their parent’s incarceration and worry about being judged for what their parents did. In addition to trauma they might be feeling lonely, isolated, scared, angry, or depressed, and they might be navigating difficult family circumstances, sometimes with very little support.

How Can Prison Staff and Volunteers Help to Create a Positive Environment for Family Visitations?

A child’s visits with an incarcerated parent can be a positive experience and can help to build or maintain a positive parent-child relationship. However, visits can also be stressful for children and may cause them to feel afraid or sad about the separation when the visit is over.8 Prison staff and volunteers are in a unique position to help ease these feelings and prevent any further traumatization by taking some quick steps to set a positive tone for children visiting their parents.

Before the Visit

  • Children often have to travel long distances to see their parents and can understandably be very disappointed if they are turned away. To help ensure the maximum number of children are able to visit, it is helpful if staff make sure all caregivers bringing children to visit are informed about visitation rules, such as the dress code and the maximum number of children allowed to visit. It is best to have this information conveyed to visitors prior to arriving at the facility, either on a facility website, in an email, or over the phone. If incarcerated parents are also informed of the rules, they can share this information with visitors before they arrive. Clearly communicating the rules — and applying them consistently — will reduce visitors’ and incarcerated parents’ confusion and frustration.
  • Visitors who are coming for the first time or are not able to visit very often are usually unfamiliar with the visiting process and can feel very anxious not knowing what will happen next. Having a staff member or volunteer calmly explain the steps (e.g. “You will wait here and then you will go through additional security.”) to caregivers and children can decrease the anxiety they may be feeling about the process.
  • Security procedures can be intimidating for children. Make these spaces as friendly as possible by clearly explaining the procedures and having procedures posted. Offering children a small reward, such as a sticker or even a high-five for successfully going through security, can help set the stage for a positive visit and help the child see staff and volunteers as approachable.
  • Children can also be made to feel more comfortable during what can be a stressful time by having staff and volunteers acknowledge them, smile, and talk to them in a positive tone. Acknowledging something positive about the child (e.g., “I really like your hair” or “You are doing a great job waiting!”) can help set a welcoming tone.
  • Long wait times can cause children to become irritable, which can cause caregivers to become stressed. They may have a hard time sitting still or controlling their bodies. Whenever possible, decreasing the time a child has to wait before visiting their parent and making the waiting room child-friendly by having books or other activities available may help reduce children’s anxiety, thereby reducing caregivers’ stress.

During the Visit

  • Non-contact visits can be stressful for children because they can see, but not touch their parent, which is not typically the way parents and children interact (especially for young children). Allowing for as much contact as possible can ease this stress and can be an important way for children to feel connected to their parents.
  • Children may be easily distracted by other visitors and in some cases the behavior or language of other visitors may not be appropriate for children. Give family visitors as much privacy as possible, without compromising safety and security.
  • Children may be intimidated very easily in this setting, especially if they have had negative interactions with police officers in the past. If a child breaks a rule during a visit, use a calm voice and age-appropriate language to help the child understand the rule.
  • Visits are often time-limited. Help prepare children and caregivers for the end of the visit by making sure they know how long the visits are and reminding them a few minutes before the visit ends. This will provide children with an opportunity to say goodbye to their parent in a meaningful way.

Related Resources for Further Reading

Children of Incarcerated Parents. Children of Incarcerated Parents Federal Website.
http://www.youth.gov/coip

From Prison to Home: The Effect of Incarceration and Reentry on Children, Families, and Communities. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation.
https://aspe.hhs.gov/pdf-report/prison-home-effect-incarceration-and-reentry-children-families-and-communities

Supporting Children and Families of Prisoners. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Children’s Bureau.
https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/supporting/support-services/prisoners/

Video Visiting in Corrections: Benefits, Limitations, and Implementation Considerations. National Institute of Corrections.
http://nicic.gov/library/029609

References

1 Shanahan, R. & Villalobos Agudelo, S. (2012). The Family and Recidivism. American Jails, pp 17-24.
2 The Federal Interagency Working Group for Children of Incarcerated Parents. (2013). Promoting Social and Emotional Well-Being for Children of Incarcerated Parents.
3 Harm, N. J. & Phillips, S. D. (1998). Helping children cope with the trauma of parental arrest. Interdisciplinary Report on At Risk Children and Families, 1, pp 35-36.
4 La Vigne, N., et al. (2008). Broken Bonds: Understanding and Addressing the Needs of Children with Incarcerated Parents. The Urban Institute.
5 Hairston, C. F. (2003). Prisoners and Their Families: parenting issues during incarceration. Prisoners Once Removed, pp 259-279.
6 Uchida, C. D., Swatt, M., & Solomon, S. E. (2012). Exposure to violence among children of inmates: a research agenda. Silver Spring, MD: Justice & Security Strategies.
7 Mumola, C. J. (2000). Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Reports: Parents in prison and their children. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.
8 Arditti, J. A. (2003). Locked doors and glass walls: Family visiting at a local jail. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 8, pp 115-138.

Tip Sheet for Incarcerated Parents: Planning for a Visit from Your Child/Children

Download the PDF (3 pages).

Visitation can be an important and meaningful experience for incarcerated parents and their children, but it can also be a source of stress and anxiety when parents’ or children’s expectations do not align with what ends up happening. Many aspects of visitation are outside of the control of an incarcerated parent, but there are things you can do to anticipate problems and reduce stress to make visitation a positive and beneficial experience for everyone involved. Below are things to consider when planning for a visit from your child. If you do not know the answer to a question, think about who in your facility you can ask for an answer such as other incarcerated parents, volunteers, or facility staff. Even if you cannot find the answer to a particular question, if you think it could affect the visit make sure your child’s caregiver is aware of the issue.

Things to Consider Before the Visit

  • What are the rules? It can be very disappointing for everyone when families are turned away and not allowed to visit because they did not understand the visiting rules and procedures of the facility. To help prevent this from happening, check with the staff and let your family know the rules on:
    • What can visitors wear? Many facilities prohibit revealing clothing, sweatshirts with hoods, or spandex-type clothing. Open toed shoes may also be a problem.
    • What can visitors bring to a visit? Some facilities allow caregivers with infants to bring a bottle, a change of clothes, and a diaper; and they may allow a child to bring a toy or a book; other facilities do not. Can a child bring a gift? Many facilities do not allow visitors to bring in gifts or other items including cash for their loved one. It can be terribly disappointing for a child to plan to give their parent a drawing or small gift only to be told at security that it is not allowed.
    • How many visitors are allowed at one time? Facilities can be very strict on the maximum number of visitors and count infants towards this number. If only two people are allowed in and there are three young children, make sure your visitor knows that he/she may need someone to watch the other children while you are visiting. How can you divide visiting time evenly between your children? Is there a waiting area for additional guests to stay in during the visit if not everyone is allowed in at one time?
    • Who needs to be on the visitation list? Some facilities only require adults to be on the list, while others require minors to be included as well. Even if you have already made a request to put someone on the list, it is good to check before they visit to make sure your request has been processed.
  • How will your child react to the security? Jails and prisons can be intimidating environments for children, especially if this is their first visit. Trying to familiarize yourself with what your child will encounter during their visit and if possible explaining this information to them or their caregiver before the visit can help children feel more comfortable.
    • Think about what your child can expect to experience when going through security. Factors that could be intimidating include having dogs on site, going through a metal detector, and guards patting them down. Children may also face long lines and wait times without being able to bring along books, toys, or food. This may make children hungry, tired, and irritable by the time they are able to see you.
    • Consider informing them about the environment of the visiting room, such as if it is typically crowded and noisy with many other visitors. This may be a distraction for children during the visit, but knowing the environment ahead of time can help to prepare them.
  • Will your child/children be able to touch you? The format of the visitation can vary by facility and sometimes children can become upset if they are not able to have as much physical contact with their parent as they had anticipated. If possible, informing your child or their caregiver about what the format of the visit will be ahead of time can help children prepare for the visit. For example, factors to consider could include:
    • Are the visits video (or virtual) where you visit through a computer monitor?
    • Will you and your child be separated by Plexiglas?
    • Are contact visits allowed and if so what are the rules? Can your child hug you or sit on your lap? Do these rules vary by the age of your child?
    • How long are the visits?
  • How can you interact with your child/children? Visitations are a great time to bond with your child and thinking about what activities may be age appropriate to do during your visit can help to maximize this time.
    • If you have a baby you may want to sing quietly or read them a book.
    • An older child or teen may want to talk about what is going on with their school or sports.
    • Depending on the rules of the facility and the resources available, consider playing cards or another game together.
    • If it is a no contact visit, try to develop a signal to convey your emotions to the child, such as hands to the glass.
  • Who is bringing the child/children? Considering who is bringing your child to the visit and what your relationship is with that person can help to prevent negative conversations that may arise.
    • If you have a particularly strained relationship with the person bringing your child to visit, try to put those feelings aside so that you can prioritize this time with your child.
    • If there are things that you would like to discuss with this person that your child should not hear, encourage them to visit at another time without the child or make a plan to discuss those issues by phone.
  • Are there special visiting programs available? Some prisons have programs that allow special accommodations for visits between incarcerated mothers or fathers and their children such as contact visits or visits in child friendly rooms equipped with toys and activities. These programs can be really valuable for your children, but they often have special rules or eligibility criteria. To see if you and your child can benefit from one of these programs, ask about who can participate and how you can be involved.

Things to Consider During the Visit

  • Your child may be nervous. A child experiencing some nervousness, especially if this is their first visit, is normal. Try to give your child some time when they first arrive to settle in and consider what you know about their personality. For example, if your child is particularly shy or anxious, they may need a little more time to warm up in a new environment.
  • Your child may have changed since the last visit. If your child has visited before, but it has been a while since they have last seen you, they may comment on how you look different. Acknowledge your child’s own development and change (For example: “You’ve gotten so tall.” or “I can’t believe how many teeth you’ve lost since I last saw you!”).
  • Good questions to ask. There may be things that are happening in your child’s life that are particularly exciting or stressful for them such as moving, changing schools, or participating in a new sport or activity. Visitations can be a perfect opportunity for you to ask them about these events and their feelings about them. Every parent-child dynamic is different, but sometimes asking specific questions like “what’s your favorite class?” or “tell me about your best friend” can engage your child more than general questions like, “how are you?” Do not get discouraged if the child doesn’t talk as much as you would like. For smaller children, physical contact, if allowed, can be more important and meaningful than talking.
  • Ways to engage other than talking. Children may have their own ideas on what they would like to do during the visit. If there are toys to play with during the visit you can use this opportunity to ask if they would like to choose a game to play or if they would prefer to just sit and talk. Some facilities have photo machines or other ways that you can have a picture taken with your child. Some facilities charge with cash and coins while others require visitors to purchase tokens or tickets. Making sure caregivers are prepared to have cash with them for vending machines and photo opportunities can be useful when possible.
  • Timing matters. The time of the visit may impact how your child feels during the visit. For example, if visits begin early in the morning, children and their caregivers may have been up very early to allow time for travel or if the visits happen over the lunch hour they may feel hungry. Often, these factors are unavoidable, but it can be useful to keep in mind during the visit and try to be understanding.
  • How to make saying goodbye easier. Try to give your child 5 minute and 10 minute warnings before the end of the visit so that they can start mentally preparing to leave. Children can feel more at ease if they know the next time they will be able to visit. If you know this information, tell your child roughly when the next visit will occur. If possible, try to provide a transitional item for the child to take home such as a drawing or photo to end on a positive note.

Things to Consider After the Visit

  • Who can the child talk to about it? It is important for children to be able to express their feelings about the visit. Families and other individuals can be a great support system. Consider talking to your child’s caregiver about reaching out to a broader support network, both within and beyond your family for advice and assistance.
  • Follow-up with a call or letter. It may be helpful to call or send a letter a few days after the visit to remind your child that there are other ways to communicate other than in-person visits. It could also be nice to ask a question or share a detail that your child told you during the visit to show that you were listening, such as “how did that test go?” or “are you still feeling sad about so and so?”
  • What are other sources of support for your child? There may be programs or resources that can help your child through this time. Encourage your child’s caregiver or other family members to look into mentoring programs or other resources that can be of assistance to your child. You can share with them the "Resources for Caregivers" section.

Resources for Caregivers: Talking to Children

Sesame Street’s Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration
http://www.sesamestreet.org/parents/topicsandactivities/toolkits/incarceration

Materials from the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated
http://nrccfi.camden.rutgers.edu/resources/library/children-of-prisoners-library/
Including:
Age-specific guidance
http://nrccfi.camden.rutgers.edu/files/cipl201-caringforcip.pdf (PDF, 3 pages)
Advice for caregivers
http://nrccfi.camden.rutgers.edu/files/cipl202-questionsfromcaregivers.pdf (PDF, 4 pages)
http://nrccfi.camden.rutgers.edu/files/cpl204-tipsfromcaregivers.pdf (PDF, 2 pages)

Materials from the New Jersey Department of Corrections, When a parent goes to prison: A guide to discussing your incarceration with your children
http://www.state.nj.us/corrections/pdf/OTS/InmateFamilyResources/WhatAboutMe.pdf (PDF, 116 pages)

Materials from the Oregon Program, Parenting Inside Out (providing evidence-based curriculum for incarcerated mothers and fathers)
http://www.parentinginsideout.org/
Including a set of materials targeted toward educators and caregivers and a collection of resources for children
http://www.parentinginsideout.org/resources/

For children in foster care
http://www.aecf.org/m/resourcedoc/aecf-F2F-PartnershipsBetweenCorrectionsandChildWelfareCollaborationforChangePartTwo-2001.pdf (PDF, 22 pages)