Children whose parents are incarcerated are the “invisible victims of mass incarceration,” and judges and corrections authorities need to pay special attention to the emotional trauma and financial burdens they encounter, argues a new paper in the Maryland Law Review.
Amy B. Cyphert, author of the study, and a lecturer at the West Virginia University College of Law Lecturer, said research offered several pathways that provided a “ray of hope” for young people when one or both parents was behind bars.
Providing a more “positive experience” during the visits of children to the facilities where a parent was held has also been shown to reduce recidivism rates among offenders, she wrote. According to Cyphert, children often resist going to facilities because of the stigma involved.
Cyphert recommended that judges in the federal system order that “Family Impact Statements” be included into a defendant’s presentence report, using what she described as “a heretofore largely unused ‘catchall provision’ of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.”
The author admitted that such impact statements, which provide information that assesses the “financial, social, psychological, and medical impact on the defendant’s family, especially any minor children,” have encountered resistance from some who might see them as a means of allowing offenders to escape responsibility for their crimes.
But she noted that “states that have adopted the practice, even on a trial basis, have reported encouraging results,” citing for example New York.
Cyphert said it was crucial to keep in mind that despite committing no crime, children of the incarcerated face deteriorating physical and psychological health, and problems at school, which are reflected in high rates of asthma, obesity, depression and anxiety.
More worryingly, childhood traumas may in turn lay the seeds for increased risk in adulthood for drug abuse, unemployment and involvement with the justice system itself.
Cyphert recommended that authorities consider extending visitation hours for children and partnering with nonprofit organizations to solve logistical issues like transportation to prison.
In a criminal justice system disproportionately represented by black, impoverished and minority groups, the statistics regarding their children are similarly disproportionate.
Between 1980 and 2000, the number of children with a father in prison rose by 500 percent, according to an Annie E. Casey Foundation policy report in 2016. This is consistent with the increase in prison population in the United States.
The statistics paint a bleak picture. Black children are 7.5 times more likely, and Hispanic children 2.6 times more likely than white children to have a parent in prison, the study said.
Cyphert noted the “very obvious conclusion” that having an incarcerated parent negatively impacts all aspects of a child’s wellbeing and development. Often, a family’s finances suffer as well. The lost parental income, court-related fines and fees, and prison transportation costs create strains on families.
She wrote that there were rare cases in which a parent’s incarceration may be beneficial, for instance if they come from homes where there is abuse or neglect.
Beyond the financial burdens, some children are separated from families when parental rights are terminated. One out of every five children entering the U.S. welfare system has an incarcerated parent.
“Although these children are blameless, policy makers, judges, and prison officials in charge of visitation policies have largely overlooked them,” Cyphert wrote.
The full article can be accessed here.
Lauren Sonnenberg is a TCR news intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.