The Impact of a Parent’s Incarceration on Children

barbed wireStudies show that the growth in incarceration of men with children contributes to higher rates of homelessness among black children, in particular, by thinning family finances and placing additional strains on mothers. When a mother is incarcerated, her children often end up in foster care, separated from their immediate or extended family. Furthermore, while a stay in jail may cause a person to lose wages or work, the stigma of an arrest record—even without a conviction or charge—continues after release, with a negative effect on his or her pursuit of employment. These issues are further exacerbated by policies that ban people with certain convictions from receiving cash assistance from social welfare agencies,  a denial of food stamp subsidies, and there are also broader policies that limit access to subsidized housing.

Such instabilities can take an emotional toll on children, especially if their parent is going in and out of jail. The cycles of jail time create uncertainty for children regarding how long their parent will be gone and when their parent will return, potentially causing more stress than if the parent went away to serve a long-term prison sentence, according to a report by the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center.

Nearly 3 million children in the United States have an incarcerated parent or family member. For African-American children, the numbers are disproportionately higher than the national average, and they are the unfortunately “invisible victims” in the social, academic and familial realm. The national average for potential incarceration places black men at 1 in 3, and black women at 1 in 18. Yet, people of African descent comprise only 5% of the entire U.S. population. Of those who are incarcerated, statistically- 62% are mothers and 51% are fathers. Therefore, the impact of these statistics on children and youth, as well as family members is devastating, though rarely addressed strategically and mindfully by educators.

Children and families of offenders face many challenges to their overall strength and self-sufficiency. The focus is almost always on the offender, without consideration of the impact or the effect on the entire family, including children.  These children will pass through our nation’s public schools, year after year, and there aren’t any provisions, policies or supports to address absentee parents as it influences a child’s academic performance in school settings.

When we examine behavior concerns at school, we rarely consider that a child’s home life and family dynamics may influence the ‘maladaptive’ behaviors that occur. With all that we know about ‘mass incarceration’ of people of color in this country, we must consider the unique needs of those children who may be separated from a family member or parent.

There is now a growing awareness that parents who go to prison do not suffer the consequences alone; the children of incarcerated parents often lose contact with their parent and visits are sometimes rare. Children of incarcerated parents are more likely to drop out of school, engage in delinquency, and subsequently be incarcerated themselves.


Absences of this sort are disruptive to the lives of children, families and communities, including the person who is incarcerated. When we establish relationships with the children and their families, we can gain a greater awareness of the external stresses that impact and influence student performance, family engagement and family dynamics, as well. We can better address and understand the origins of behaviors and attitudes without taking them personally, or attribute them to deliberate defiance. Moreover, such insights thwart unfair determinations regarding strategic behavior and academic interventions we utilize at school.

When we engage others with broadened perspectives from theory to practice, our perceptions reflect more accurate representations of the realities of children and their families relative to school settings. The best form of support that we can give to children and families impacted by the incarceration of a loved one is to be mindful of the stressful circumstance and demonstrate compassion and empathy in our daily interactions.

Children and their families can be better protected to tap into their own resilience against the effects of incarceration when surrounded by caring adults who understand, listen and pay attention to the ‘whole’ child/whole family. All educators at school must possess unconditional  positive regard, respect, and total acceptance, communicated to students and families with cultural proficiency.

Teachers, with 1 out of 15 children of color impacted by a family member’s incarceration,  at least 1 or 2 students will possess unique needs, and face special challenges associated with their particular circumstance. We want to be careful to do those things which place children along the right path, keep them engaged in learning, help them feel like they belong in your classroom and encourage them to realize their potential through determination and hard work. See the tip sheet below on how adults can help children cope and succeed:


Last statement: Think hard before making determinations that may lead a student along the pipeline to prison. Lest we not forget that they are still children with lots of room to grow! Don’t pity them; be patient and press them to realize the potential they all possess!


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