More than 2.7 million children in the U.S. (1 in 28 children) have an incarcerated parent. Approximately 10 million children have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives.
Children of incarcerated fathers tend to exhibit a broad variety of behavioral, emotional, and other problems. Other family members are also subject to emotional, financial, and physical stress. This can apply whether fathers had been living in the same household as their children or not. Children’s feelings of loss and hopelessness can decrease their coping skills and increase the impact of trauma and stress.
One way to counteract this is to provide access to supportive and caring community services. Children need adults who will listen and help them communicate these feelings. The adults who have been closest to the situation often need help themselves before they are able to provide that support. Helping caregivers find resources, supports, or coping strategies can increase their ability to parent effectively. It can also increase the presence of key family protective factors and enhance the sense of nurturing and attachment between parent and child, and have a positive impact on children’s social and emotional competence.
Tips & Best Practices
- Locate services for children and family members if your program does not offer them. Fatherhood programs may not be able to provide support services directly for children and families of incarcerated parents, but they can look for opportunities to connect with existing community services. The National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated maintains a Directory of Programs Serving Children & Families of the Incarcerated and has a range of other resources relevant for work with the families of incarcerated fathers.
- Communicate the needs of the child and family members with trusted advisors and those who work with them. Programs can reach out to key members of a child’s community (e.g., teachers, school counselors, clergy, health care providers, child welfare personnel) to ensure that these individuals are aware of and fully understand the needs of children of incarcerated parents.
- Provide parents with resources to talk to children at their developmental level about incarceration. The incarceration of a loved one can be overwhelming for both children and caregivers. Because of the feeling of stigma, it takes special effort to start important conversations and answer kids’ questions. Sesame Street has resources for children ages 3-7 that can help young children cope with an incarcerated parent.
The RIDGE Project works in prisons across Ohio through an 18-week Keeping FAITH (Families and Inmates Together in Harmony) program that involves both the incarcerated fathers and their partners. The first 10 weeks of Keeping FAITH focus on intensive work with the dads to teach them to take responsibility for their actions, show them how to overcome the obstacles of their incarceration, and prepare them for the transition back into their homes and communities. Upon successful completion, a father earns the title of TYRO, which means warrior or someone learning something new. This is followed by a 4-week couples class that focuses on communication skills for fathers and their partners. The final 4 weeks of the program feature an advanced communication class in which the couples learn about conflict resolution, anger management, and relationship stability.
What do children need at each developmental age with regards to visitation?
Collective observations of clinicians and community service providers suggest that most children manage the crisis of parental incarceration better when they visit their parents. Seeing the correctional facility and the parent during a visit can correct frightening images and idealized fantasies. Programs should incorporate key issues related to communication and visiting at different stages of child development into their programs supporting children and families.
How can programs develop a family-focused jail program?
When developing programs for families, it is important to ensure they include promising practices. The Toolkit for Developing Family-Focused Jail Programs: Children of Incarcerated Parents Project, developed by the Urban Institute, details the key considerations for correctional facility administrators and community-based organizations interested in developing a family-focused jail program.
Our program wants to start a mentoring program for children of incarcerated parents. Where do we start?
Rigorous research on mentoring for children of incarcerated parents is scarce and there is only a starting base for understanding the impact of mentoring for this population and the challenges encountered. Research has shown that program-arranged mentoring for the children of incarcerated parents has the potential to contribute to observable improvements in their behavior, relationships, and emotional well-being.