Fall 2020 Guidance
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Loved One Locked Up: Supporting a Child with Incarcerated Parents

Children undergo a stark transition as their parents enter incarceration, which impacts their psychological makeups, day-to-day routines, and general ways of expressing themselves.

You know a parent who’s been arrested. You don’t know for sure what they did, but from what you’ve heard, they’re going to be behind bars for a while. Your mind races when you think of the son or daughter left behind: Who’s going to look after the child? Is there any way you can help?

A lot of uncomfortable questions surface when a parent is incarcerated. Aside from the legal details, attention immediately turns to who will care for the children. What is an overwhelming situation can be made a little less so with a support system for the children who are left behind.

How Does A Parent’s Incarceration Affect Children?

Children undergo a stark transition as their parents enter incarceration, which impacts their psychological makeups, day-to-day routines, and general ways of expressing themselves. As a result, it is vitally important that support is provided to help stabilize their behavioral and emotional development.

Many demographic variables impact the transition experienced by children of incarcerated parents such as: geographical location, age, race, ethnicity, and sex. Beyond these factors, research demonstrates a few common experiences of children with incarcerated parents:

  • Adverse living conditions
  • Strained parent-child relationships
  • Financial hardships
  • Sporadic or scattered opportunities for parent-child contact

Psychologist and author Robert T. Muller, Ph.D. wrote an article for Psychology Today exploring the mental health implications for a child with an incarcerated parent. Children “may have a difficult time socially, often when they approach adolescence.” The article also highlighted the negative emotional and psychological effects of children having a parent in prison, including, but not limited to, sorrow, guilt, and fear:

Many children of incarcerated parents develop feelings of anger and aggression, leading to failed friendships in school. Some may also become depressed and anxious, bringing academic and social challenges.

Others have commented on how the experience of having a parent sent to prison can be traumatizing for children. Youth.gov, a governmental agency that advocates for at-risk children, said that children with incarcerated parents are more likely to experience trauma because of:

  • Uprooted or disjointed family relations
  • Witnessing the reasons for the parents’ arrest
  • Observing violence in immediate community or family unit
  • Contact with substance abuse

Though these experiences can be common, human services professionals can intervene to ensure the mental and behavioral consequences won’t be as life altering.

How to Help a Child Whose Parent is In Jail

Caseworkers can apply a number of different strategies to ease the difficult transition for children with incarcerated parents. The following step-by-step framework can help prepare a child and their new caregiver for the challenges of having an incarcerated parent.

Explain incarceration to a child

This stage is vital for children of all ages. Incarceration can be a difficult concept for younger children to understand, and older children may still have a difficult time grasping the reasons for their parent’s incarceration. Caseworkers can step in to unpack the severity of the parent’s situation depending on the child’s age and maturity level.

Allow the child to vent and express their emotions 

It’s important that children feel comfortable expressing themselves after learning their parent is going to be incarcerated. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s report on children living with trauma, one of the best initial steps to take is to open clear lines of communication. Children often face a number of mental health issues both in the immediate wake of a parent’s incarceration and in the subsequent years. Therefore, caseworkers and caregivers need to establish a safe space for these children.

Gather information about their experience

After children feel comfortable expressing their feelings about their parent’s imprisonment, human services professionals should work to catalog information about their lives and their trauma. Youth.gov recommended that human services professionals approach children with incarcerated parents with sensitivity and through a “trauma-informed approach.” This strategy calls on people assisting children with incarcerated parents to:

  • Identify the different points of trauma that the children confronted
  • Locate triggering stimuli for the children to avoid
  • Help the children understand the significance of their own trauma
  • Put into action appropriate intervention strategies

Give the interim caregiver support

Interim caregivers for children of incarcerated parents are often familial relations. While the experience can be beneficial for all parties involved, interim caregivers usually must confront unexpected and unique obstacles. ChildWelfare.gov said interim caregivers report needing help with procuring the child’s medical and dental care, food, and community resources. Caseworkers should provide state- and federally-subsidized support along with other community-specific resources.

Prepare the child to visit their jailed parents

Finally, human services professionals should find out where parents are incarcerated and investigate visitation policies. According to ChildWelfare.gov, “Caseworkers must make all reasonable efforts to reunite children with their incarcerated parents.” These efforts include cultivating a continued relationship between child and incarcerated parent.

Benefits for a Child Whose Parents Are in Jail

Outside of social services, families with children of incarcerated parents should seek out community-based initiatives for more assistance. These initiatives, typically non-profit organizations, can provide aid and additional resources for both children and incarcerated parents. Here are some examples of helpful organizations that have made it their mission to provide support for children with incarcerated parents.

The Sesame Workshop

The creators of Sesame Street decided to help address the growing problem of children who have incarcerated parents by making interactive materials. The videos and activities on the site are designed to bring children and their caregivers closer, which will prove immensely beneficial while both parent and child cope with their separation.

Hour Children

Based in Long Island City, Hour Children is an organization that offers resources to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women to help their families. Hour Children helps women find stability with an effective reentry program that assists them in getting jobs that pay a living wage. While the women work on professional development goals, Hour Children provides a mentoring program for their children.

SKIP, Inc.

With franchises and community groups across the nation, SKIP, Inc. offers support to children with incarcerated parents and the caregivers who are offering them support. Their goal is to raise awareness about the ongoing and pervasive problems that children face “through education, advocacy and research.” The organization also provides summer camps for at-risk youth and hosts food banks, fundraising events, and book drives.

How You Can Get Involved

The best way to help a child with incarcerated parents is to learn from trained professionals with experience in the field. For future case workers, child welfare workers, and public administrators, Lesley University offers a fully online B.S. in Human Services that will empower you to work toward your degree at your own pace. Our program ensures you access to real-world experience that will ultimately prepare you to enter the work force confidently. Finally, with two internships at an organization of your preference, you’ll successfully tap into the inner workings of the human services world at a pace that’s comfortable for you.

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