Living In The Shadows: Children of Incarcerated Parents



Staff Writer Kelly Kinder is a graduate of Metropolitan State University’s writing program.  She is currently working on a stage play for children.

An American epidemic is robbing millions of kids of a normal childhood and nobody is talking about it. There are more than twice as many children impacted as those diagnosed with Autism and Type 1 Diabetes combined. According to the Department of Justice, 1 out of every 28 children under the age of 18 have experienced the stigma and challenges related to having a parent in jail at some point in their lives. When was the last time you heard a public service announcement or call for donations to assist these children in need? Children of incarcerated parents can experience emotional, behavioral and academic challenges that could perpetuate the cycle of criminal behavior that their parents began.  Children are resilient and with the right support, these children can become productive, satisfied members of society.  Children of incarcerated parents don’t need a scientists working on a cure, they need communities rallying around them to provide the kind of support that will allow them to break the cycle of incarceration that threatens them.

According to the 2008 Bureau of Justice Special Report, the number of children with a parent in jail had increased an estimated 79% between 1991 and 2007. This outcome is primarily a result of tougher sentencing laws 1. As of 2011-2012, 60,000 children in Colorado had experienced parental incarceration 2.  These children are innocent of the crimes of their parents and they are often suffering in silence. According to the San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership, their needs “go not just unmet but unacknowledged.”

Exact data is impossible to obtain. Surprisingly, the agencies involved in investigating crimes, prosecuting criminals and administering sentences are not required to inquire or record information regarding whether a criminal has minor children. Nor are they required to provide services or support in instances when they are aware that children exist. As a result, care of the children is often left to extended family members who may not be prepared financially or otherwise to provide a safe and supportive home environment. During the arrest, parents are often resistant to provide information regarding their children for fear that their parental rights could be terminated.

According to the Bureau of Justice, the average felony prison sentence is four years. Consider this in relation to the disruption in the life of a child with an incarcerated parent. The child would experience the loss of their mother or father as their primary caregiver, in addition to possibly having to relocate to a new home and change schools.  These struggles are only amplified by the financial hardship and feelings of shame and confusion that often accompany having a parent in jail. Then, when the parent reenters their lives they are likely to experience the same disruptive events all over again in addition to challenges of re-establishing the child-parent relationship. All of this occurring over a period of just four years, during a crucial time in the social, emotional and academic time of a child’s life.

In a small study of children ranging in age from 8 to 17 years, findings showed that while the stress and risk factors can not be underestimated, there was evidence to support children’s resiliency, both in shouldering the responsibility of having an incarcerated parent and in identifying ways to get involved in community activities to alleviate some of the burden of their situations 3. This small sample supports the bigger argument that changes in public policy and providing a solid support system for children, parents and caregivers could significantly impact child outcomes across the board. In particular, studies have shown that any support that can preserve continuity of care of a child can be considered a promotive factor for at risk children 4. Factors such as visitation, the role of the caregiver and access to community resources, as well as community support, are key in providing continuity of care to these children.

Parent-child contact through visitation is a complex issue that can be impacted by a number of factors including, the age of the child, parent-child relationship prior to incarceration, the parent-caregiver relationship and the specific characteristics of the visitation area of the jail or prison. In 2010, Poehlmann, Dallaire, et al. compiled all of the known, small-scale studies regarding parent-child contact for the purpose of evaluating and making recommendations.  While results regarding visitation were mixed, the studies unanimously concluded that alternatives to visitation, such as letters and phone calls, benefited both parent in child. These forms of contact remove the potential negative aspects associated with visitation.  Experts also agree that forms of intervention, such as parenting programs, can be beneficial both in increasing the quality and results of visitation and with parent-child interaction during reentry.

The role of the caregiver is incredibly important. Caregivers can take many forms. In some instances, the caregiver is the non-jailed parent. Other times the care giver is a relative, often a grandmother, or in some cases a foster parent. While the role is filled in different ways, the emotional and financial strain endured by a caregiver is universal. Their role is significant because it has been shown to impact the child in many ways. Providing a stable environment can benefit a child greatly. Additionally, the quality of co-parenting relationship between the caregiver and the incarcerated parent can impact everything from the quality of visitation to the frequency of non-visitation communication. These caregivers in particular need community support. They need introduction and access to programs that will support the financial, emotional and social needs of both them and the children in their care. They need to be connected with services and with others in their community experiencing similar situations.

The majority of research on this subject has been done with small test groups. Many of the studies involved less than 100 participants. In addition, most studies focused on risks and negative outcomes. The most encouraging study instead focuses on resilience and achievement despite difficult circumstances.  In Kate Luther’s study of 32 college students who had experienced parental incarceration during their childhoods, she examined how individuals can be insulated from stressful experiences through social support, also referred to as “buffering.” Specifically, caring adults were able to promote resilience in subjects through facilitating participation in community activities, such as athletics and religious activities; helping subjects visualize a better life free of crime and focused on education; and finally instigating turning points in the subject’s life. Turning points are characterized by a specific behavior or life path headed in the wrong direction and someone reaching out to the subject in a supportive way to encourage or insist on a change in behavior or new path.  In some instances, these caring adults were teachers or counselors at school and in others it was the incarcerated parent themselves encouraging and reinforcing these ideas 5.


While these children do not garner the attention of a broad section of the public, there are those who are diligently working on their behalf. Douglas County, like other prosperous communities in Colorado, is not immune to the struggles of children of jailed parents. Fortunately, Captain Kevin Duffy of the Douglas County Sheriff’s office has recognized the impact on children, their families and his community.  He and his team have taken the initiative in several key areas including arrest protocol, collaboration between entities, and keeping inmates connected with their families through the Read-A-Book program, which offers the opportunity to record their voice reading books that can be sent their children. In addition, they are working with the Douglas County Parenting Coalition to offer parenting classes that will allow incarcerated parents to make the most of communication with their children, as well as prepare themselves for reuniting upon reentry to the community.  Parenting programs can improve the reentry process and help to develop their parenting skills for use once they are back in their homes. Improved arrest protocol could also help to alleviate resentment and distrust of law enforcement that can develop in children of incarcerated parents 1. This negative view of law enforcement could be a factor in the intergenerational cycle of crime and incarceration that these children are often caught in 4. Reconceived, the arrest process “could also be an opportunity to intervene and offer support” 1. The Douglas County Sheriff’s office is capitalizing on this opportunity.


Look for opportunities to support initiatives within our state and local legislature that will benefit children of incarcerated parents. For instance, sentencing alternatives for non-violent crimes, addressing the disproportionate number of minority inmates, considering family preservation, perhaps in the form of impact statements prior to sentencing, and financial support for caregivers, as well as support for parents upon reentry to the community 2. In the meantime, as we become aware of the prevalence of children with incarcerated parents and realize that these are children living in our community, recognize the actions we can take today.  These are our neighbors, members of our churches, and peers in our student’s classrooms.  Research supports the resilience of children in supportive environments and the difference that a caring adult can make in their lives. As teachers, coaches, mentors, friends and community members, we can make a difference. Awareness is the first step to change.

As aware and informed community members, we can put ourselves in a position to offer nonjudgmental support to these children, their caregivers and their parents. We have the opportunity to identify resources, educate and prepare ourselves to offer compassionate and encouraging support.  The most recent data from the Bureau of Justice shows a decrease in the number of inmates in state and federal prisons, the lowest since 2005 6. Unfortunately, during the same time, the report indicates the number of female inmates increased more than 1%, which suggests while the overall inmate population is going down, the number of children of incarcerated mothers could be on the rise 6.  There is still work to be done.

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