More than 5 million children have had at least one parent with whom they live be incarcerated at some point in their childhood.

This estimate was part of a report published by Child Trends (CT), a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group focused on issues related to children and youth, which sought to determine the impact of parental incarceration on children.

“After accounting for effects associated with demographic variables such as race and income,” CT explained, “we found that parental incarceration was associated with:

  1. A higher number of other major, potentially traumatic life events – stressors that are most damaging when they are cumulative;
  2. More emotional difficulties, low school engagement and more problems in school, among children ages 6 to 11; and
  3. A greater likelihood of problems in school among older youth (12 to 17), as well as less parental monitoring.”

CT also found that “parental incarceration had no measurable effect on youth participation in sports or clubs, frequent religious attendance, meals with family, parental ability to talk about things that matter.”

The report noted that “discussions of U.S. corrections policy do not often consider children,” even though data reveals that “there are more children who have experienced a resident parent’s incarceration than there are currently incarcerated adults.”

While “in-prison training programs focused on parenting skills are common, few are focused on meeting the needs of children directly during the time parents are in prison,” CT revealed.

Even though “research on interventions for children with incarcerated parents is limited,” the report suggested that “reducing the trauma and stigma these children experience, improving communications between the child and the incarcerated parent, and making visits with the incarcerated parent more child-friendly may alleviate some of the negative effects of this separation.”

Bipartisan discussions about sentencing and prison reform have been ongoing for several years, with the newly proposed Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act being announced in late September, and President Obama’s focus on reform initiatives.

Through the Door,”’s latest documentary, focused on the faith community’s engagement on the prison front.

Several interviewees spoke about incarceration’s impact on families.

“Every time a person gets incarcerated, that person has a family that goes into crisis,” said Emmett Solomon, former executive director of Restorative Justice Ministries Network of Texas (RJMN).

David Valentine, pastor of Covenant Fellowship in Huntsville, Texas, added, “For every offender, there are five family members in crisis … when you start working with offenders you multiply that number by five and that tells you the family impact of what you are doing.”

Vernon Pittman, a retired Texas prison warden, spoke about seeing multiple generations of a single family come through the prison system.

“I had been in the prison system for a long time and had seen a lot of the guys that I started my career with 30 years ago. Also during that 30-year period, I started seeing their children, their sons, come to prison. Then, later on, I started to see their grandchildren in prison.”

“Seventy percent of the children who have parents who have been incarcerated will follow [their parents] to prison,” Bill Kleiber, current RJMN executive director, said.

The full report is available here.

Share This