Children of incarcerated parents are affected to the same degree as children of abuse or domestic violence, according to a new report by an advocacy group for at-risk children.
In "A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Kids, Families and Communities," the Annie E. Casey Foundation analyzed the impact on the estimated 5 million American children who have a parent in jail or prison.
The report notes that while state governments spend billions on prisons and corrections, comparatively little money is spent on the social welfare of the children left behind by imprisoned parents. It also calls for new sentencing guidelines for criminal courts that take into account the social cost of imprisoning the parents of young children.
The most obvious impact on children of the incarcerated is economic. With one parent in prison, those children are essentially living in single-parent, single-income households, the study says. Others are handed over to grandparents or other relatives, and almost always suffer financially as a result.
But the psychological and emotional impact is something that can't be quantified, experts say. The New York Times ran a story that detailed the life of one young girl who has "visited her father at three different prisons," according to her mother. Visits to her incarcerated father are in closely-supervised visiting rooms, where rules are often arbitrary, and in some cases things like a simple embrace are not permitted. In some prisons, breaking a single rule will end the visit immediately.
“There’s nothing to help these young children to understand and process what’s happening when parents are in and out of their lives,” Joseph T. Jones, president of the Center for Urban Families in Baltimore, told The New York Times.
To ease the burden on the children of incarcerated parents and reduce the likelihood that a prison sentence for a parent could lead to behavioral problems for the child, the Annie E. Casey Foundation study recommends that states dedicate portions of their corrections budgets to programs which would help those children.
Among the recommendations are counseling for children whose fathers or mothers are in prison, programs that encourage frequent visits, and options like videoconferencing with parents between visiting days.
Those programs should be complemented by services to help parents transition when they're released from prison and obtain jobs, the foundation recommends.
“We need a universal plan in place to assess what parental responsibilities someone has when they enter prison,” Jones said. “We should know if they have children, what their relationship is with them, what kind of financial support they provide, if they have child support debt.”