Parents Behind Bars: What Happens to Their Children?

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Author(s): ChildTrends

Published: Oct. 27, 2015

Report Intro/Brief:
"Children do not often figure in discussions of incarceration, but new research finds more than five million U.S. children have had at least one parent in prison at one time or another—about three times higher than earlier estimates that included only children with a parent currently incarcerated. This report uses the National Survey of Children’s Health to examine both the prevalence of parental incarceration and child outcomes associated with it.

Based on our analyses, we found that more than five million children, representing seven percent of all U.S. children, have ever had a parent who lived with them go to jail or prison. This proportion is higher among black, poor, and rural children. Our figure of more than five million is almost certainly an underestimate, since it does not include children with a non-residential parent who was incarcerated. This is important new information. In 2007, the most recent point-in-time estimate, 1.7 million children, or just over 2 percent, had a parent (including non-residential parents) currently in prison. Previous research has found connections between parental incarceration and childhood health problems, behavior problems, and grade retention. It has also been linked to poor mental and physical health in adulthood.

More than five million U.S. children have had a parent in prison. (This is almost certainly an underestimate.) After accounting for effects associated with demographic variables such as race and income, we found that parental incarceration was associated with:

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