More than five million children under the age of 18 — approximately 7 percent of all children in the United States — have at least one parent who has been incarcerated, a report from Child Trends finds.
According to the report, Parents Behind Bars: What Happens to Their Children? (22 pages, PDF), African-American children are nearly twice as likely as white children (11.5 percent vs. 6 percent) to have had a parent who was incarcerated, while children living in poverty are more than three times as likely as those from higher-income families (12.5 percent vs. 3.9 percent) and those living in rural areas are 1.7 times as likely as those in metropolitan areas (10.7 percent vs. 6.3 percent).
The study also found that children who experienced parental incarceration were likely to have a greater number of "adverse childhood experiences," including living with a person who has a substance abuse problem or is mentally ill or suicidal, witnessing violence in one's home or neighborhood, and experiencing the death of a parent. Among children between the ages of 6 and 11, parental incarceration was associated with a greater likelihood of emotional difficulties, low school engagement, and problems in school.
Funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the report highlights the importance of families, schools, and communities in providing greater support to children who experience parental incarceration and calls on criminal justice system officials and policy makers to take action to reduce the stigma associated with having an incarcerated parent, improve communications between children and their incarcerated parents, and make prison visits less stressful and traumatic for children.
"Certainly if a parent poses a danger to the child, parental incarceration can have positive effects," said David Murphey, a Child Trends senior research scientist and co-author of the report. "However, most research finds negative outcomes for these children, such as childhood health and behavioral problems and grade retention. Children who grow up with a parent in prison are also more likely to suffer from poor mental and physical health in adulthood."