Children of Incarcerated Parents Need Support: Study

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Digital Art by Noelle Garcia via Flickr.

Children with parents involved in the justice system are often forgotten, advocates argue, citing that while the focus has traditionally been on punishing an adult for a crime, that child who loses their parent is stunted in the process.

Researchers at the University of Southern Maine took it upon themselves to understand this problem in their own state, learning that 3,400 children had a parent incarcerated in one of the state’s prisons in the last five years. From their research, they’ve created policy recommendations for Maine’s upcoming legislative session, according to their report.

A recent research study cited by the authors found that more than five million children in the U.S. have experienced the incarceration of a parent at some point in their childhood, which is a known Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) that can lead to a generational cycle of incarceration as a result of the loss of critical years of stability.

Incarcerating mothers of young children is cited as a “particularly problematic” issue as one study has shown that children of incarcerated mothers have “much higher rates of incarceration compared to children with incarcerated fathers.”

The current research was conducted by Jillian Foley, Erica King, and Casey Benner from the Justice Policy Program at the Cutler Institute, which is part of the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine. The research was also part of the Place Matters project, which helps create result-focused and data-informed solutions to social and justice policy issues in Maine.

“We must implement policies and evidence-based community programming that supports families,” the researchers begin.

The Maine Department of Corrections provided them with anonymous data about people who were incarcerated between January 2015 and May 2020, which the researchers used to statistically analyze information about their parenting and their access to their own children.

Parental Incarceration Leaves Scars

Through their available data, the researchers totaled 2,134 unique parent records, made up of 345 (16 percent) mothers and 1,789 (84 percent) fathers. “While the race and ethnicity of the children were not reported, out of the 2,134 parent records, 82 percent were white (n=1,756), 11 percent (n=227) were Black or African American, and 4 percent (n=80) were Native American,” the report outlines.

The parents reported a total of 3,403 children, indicating a high number of multiple-sibling households without one of their parents.

Nearly 300 children (9 percent) were under the age of 5-years-old when one of their parents went behind bars — meaning many families were reduced to a single-parent household during the time of a child’s most critical development, the authors explain. Among the remaining children of the sample, 39 percent were between the ages of 5 and 10, and 52 percent were between 11 and 17 years old at the time of their parent’s intake.

The authors write that this was the most heartbreaking finding, considering for many of those children, they lost formative years without their parent’s involvement or participation — like their first words, school plays, and sports games — potentially creating traumatic gaps in their development.

One incarcerated Maine mother shared her experience with the researchers.

“When I was sentenced, my youngest child was three months old,” the mother, who is also a student and a justice scholar, told the researchers. “You know, being sentenced to four years with a three-month-old in the courtroom with you is definitely something I never wish on anybody.”

Reducing Parenting Barriers

“In order to truly address the problem of parental incarceration and the impact it has on Maine children, we must invest in prevention policies that help families remain intact when it is appropriate and help families thrive,” the authors write, noting that many lawmakers and advocates have access to viable areas of making a large impact.

First and foremost, the researchers suggest investing money back into the community in areas where support and prevention-based policies exist that put families and children first. This includes Community-based care networks, educational and employment opportunities, and access to mental health and substance use treatment.

This is particularly important, the authors note, considering “research shows that the majority of women who are incarcerated in Maine are incarcerated for drug or economic related offenses.”

Moreover, lawmakers can review the parental visitation policies that are implemented to encourage more parental involvement for children while the adults are incarcerated. This could include technology and virtual visitations so children can actually see their parents more frequently beyond hearing their voice over a phone — a barrier that already harms Maine families.

Republican Representative MaryAnne Kinney of Knox introduced a bill that would lower the cost of phone calls in Maine jails and prisons. The average cost of a 15-minute call is about $5, a price that is insurmountable for some parents trying to simply hear their children while incarcerated, Press Herald explains.

The researchers also suggest prioritizing allowing parents to join meetings or events of the child’s life virtually; like parent-teacher conferences, sporting events, school performances, and holiday celebrations, to name a few.

The researchers cite the Parenting Inside Out program, where incarcerated parents learn evidence-based cognitive behavioral skills on the parenting journey while involved with the justice system.

Other recommendations made by the researchers include:

      • “Develop community re-integration interventions for families that mitigate parental stress and strengthen family support;
      • Designate resources and targeted services to help children with incarcerated parents in Maine; and,
      • Invest in further research and develop systems and protocols to collect better data and track the impact of parental incarceration on these children over time.”

Together, the authors conclude in the report that: “By ensuring Maine families have access to appropriate services and a community-based network of support we can stop the cycle of intergenerational incarceration and improve outcomes for Maine’s children.”

Jillian Foley, MPPM, is a Policy Associate at the University of Southern Maine’s Cutler Institute with over a decade of experience in justice policy, international education, and market research.

Erica King, MSW, is a Senior Policy Associate at the University of Southern Maine’s Cutler Institute with over twenty years of experience as a policy and program developer, coach, and facilitator. In addition to her work at USM, Erica enjoys a national reputation as a consultant helping correctional organizations implement evidence-based practices and become more gender informed in their work.

Casey Benner is a Research Analyst on the Violence Against Women Act Measuring Effectiveness Initiative project, housed at the Cutler Institute and a MSW candidate at the University of Southern Maine.  

The full report can be accessed here. 

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.

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