School & District Management

Parents’ Incarceration Takes Toll on Children, Studies Say

By Sarah D. Sparks — February 24, 2015 7 min read
Former inmate Bruce Lisker, whose murder conviction was overturned in 2009, speaks to members of the Pain of the Prison System club at Venice High School in Los Angeles. The club provides support for students with family members in or out of prison.
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Without ever breaking a school rule or getting a low grade, 2.7 million American students are already further along the pipeline to prison than their classmates—simply because they have a parent who is behind bars.

Studies show parental incarceration can be more traumatic to students than even a parent’s death or divorce, and the damage it can cause to students’ education, health, and social relationships puts them at higher risk of one day going to prison themselves. Yet in many schools, that circumstance is a hidden problem, hard for teachers to track and difficult for students and caregivers to discuss.

“Most kids feel it has to be kept a secret,” Amy Friedman, a founder and the executive director of Pain of the Prison System, or POPS, a support club at Venice High School in Los Angeles. “If you have to keep a secret all the time, it makes everything else in school a lot harder.”

At the 2,300-student Venice High, one cramped classroom fills with as many as 60 students on the first Wednesday of each month. The new ones may say nothing, or claim they’re just there for the lunch. The real reason comes out after a few meetings, says Ms. Friedman: All of these students, like Ms. Friedman herself, have fathers, mothers, brothers, or cousins in and out of prison.

More than 2.7 million American children and youths have at least one parent in federal or state prison (with more having parents and other family members in local jails), and one-third of them will reach age 18 while a parent is behind bars, according to the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated, at Rutgers University in Camden, N.J.

There are strong racial disparities: Forty-five percent of children of incarcerated parents are black, compared with 28 percent who are white and 21 percent who are Hispanic.

Long-Term Damage

In the 2014 book Children of the Prison Boom: Mass Incarceration and the Future of American Inequality, researchers Sara Wakefield of Rutgers University-Newark and Christopher Wildeman of Yale University found that one-quarter of black children born in 1990 had a parent in jail or prison by the time the child was age 14—more than double the rate for black children born in 1978.

Members of the Pain of the Prison System club listen to former inmate Bruce Lisker, whose murder conviction was overturned in 2009, speak at Venice High School in Los Angeles.

“Mass incarceration is so unequally distributed across the population, that if incarceration does have an effect on kids’ educational outcomes, it has a disproportionate effect on poor and minority kids, who are already at a disadvantage,” said Kristin Turney, an assistant sociology professor at the University of California, Irvine.

Parental incarceration can be safer for a child, particularly when the parent was imprisoned for domestic violence or child abuse. But regardless of why a parent is behind bars, emerging research suggests it puts children at high and often invisible risk, as well as aggravating existing racial and poverty gaps.

Children of incarcerated parents have higher rates of attention deficits than those with parents missing because of death or divorce, and higher rates of behavioral problems, speech and language delays, and other developmental delays, according to a study published last summer in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior that analyzed data from a national survey of children’s health. In separate but related studies, Ms. Turney also found higher rates of asthma, obesity, depression, and anxiety.

For education, the statistics are equally dramatic: Only 1 percent to 2 percent of students with incarcerated mothers and 13 percent to 25 percent of students with imprisoned fathers graduate from college, according to a 2013 report from the American Bar Association and the White House.

Moreover, having a significant proportion of students with incarcerated parents in a school is associated with lower grade point averages and rates of college graduation, even for classmates without incarcerated parents.

There’s been far less research on the effects of having incarcerated family members beyond parents, but some recent studies suggest siblings of those jailed also struggle with grief, stress, and stigmatization by those who know their sibling is imprisoned.

Searching for Reasons

It is so clear a risk factor that having a member of the household go to prison was considered one of the key “adverse childhood experiences” that California studies found contribute to significant health, educational, and social problems for children even decades later.

“What is it about incarceration that really matters, that is so damaging to kids? We don’t know,” said Ms. Turney, a 2014 scholar for the Foundation for Child Development, for which she is studying the long-term effects of having a father in prison.

“Is it the economic hit that these families take?—with divorce, the father can at least still contribute economically—or is it the stigma and shame for kids?” she said.

In a study published in October in the journal Sociology of Education, Ms. Turney found the elementary-grade children of incarcerated parents were at higher risk of being held back at the end of the year—but not because of significantly lower test scores or more behavior problems than classmates.

Rather, “it was their teachers’ perceptions of the students’ academic proficiency and how well the kid was doing,” Ms. Turney said. “It does suggest that teachers are really important here, and they really play an important role in students’ lives.”

Ms. Friedman, of the POPS club at Venice High, raised her ex-husband’s two daughters while he was in prison. She agreed that stress and shame can make the loss of a parent to incarceration more traumatic.

“The things that come up the most with a parent inside is this feeling that you are going to be just like them,” Ms. Friedman said, “and there’s this fear and loss and disappointment that translates to depression in a lot of kids.”

Building Supports

POPS and the U.S. Dream Academy—an eight-city, after-school program supporting children and families of incarcerated people—are among a growing group of programs dedicated to buffering the academic and emotional effects of having a family member in prison.

Evroy Marrett is the director of the Washington branch of the Dream Academy, located at the Learning Center at Turner Elementary School, said the after-school program tries not only to replace the homework help and reading support a missing parent might provide, but also the more nebulous “dream building” and opinion formulation that develop with parents’ help.

“When it’s not directly linked to say, nutrition, a big part of [the damage of parental incarceration] is not having that guidance in the home,” Mr. Marrett said. “It’s just involvement, period.”

The Dream Academy also provides support to the student’s caregiver—often a mother, grandmother or aunt, Mr. Marrett said.

“A lot of times, you’ll see a shift in behavior, and a lot of times you may not know what it is,” Mr. Marrett said. “As we talk to moms or aunts, the picture starts to come clear, that the father has been arrested or had a parole hearing.”

For students who go into foster care, helping parents stay involved in their education can make a big difference in whether those children continue relationships with their incarcerated parents at all.

Under the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act, or ASFA, a child-welfare agency will seek to end parental rights if a child has been in foster care for 15 of the past 22 months—including when the parent is behind bars. However, 32 states allow exceptions if there is a “compelling reason to believe that terminating the parent’s rights is not in the best interests of the child"—including if a parent has made meaningful attempts to stay connected to the child.

That’s not an easy task for a parent in prison. More than 40 percent of those in federal prison are kept at least 500 miles from home, and 61 percent of those in state prison are incarcerated 100 or more miles away, according to a presentation by Philip M. Genty, a clinical professor of professional responsibility at Columbia Law School, which he gave as part of a 2013 White House symposium on children of incarcerated parents.

“They can’t go to parent-teacher nights; they can’t be there to help with homework; they have very little access to the children.” Ms. Friedman said.

Among the limited programs intended to keep incarcerated parents connected to their children, those focused on schooling are rarest. In the early 2000s, Florida offered some mothers in prison opportunities to read to their children regularly through videoconferences, but the program did not continue.

“There are a lot of programs for the incarcerated, but not so many for the collateral damage out here,” Ms. Friedman said.

A version of this article appeared in the February 25, 2015 edition of Education Week as Children of Inmates Seen at Risk


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