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Parental and Caregiver Incarceration

Parental incarceration is considered a toxic stressor and can have lasting negative effects on children. When appropriate and culturally relevant support is provided, children can not only heal but also develop resilience-building skills that will help them cope with, and overcome, future challenges.


Over two million children in the U.S. (four percent of all children) have a parent or caregiver who is currently incarcerated (Turney & Goodsell, 2018). Many more children have experienced parental incarceration at some point during their childhood (Laub, 2018). Lower income communities of color experience incarceration at significantly higher rates than white communities (National Academies Press, 2023). Racial and ethnic disparities are observed at every stage of criminal justice processing, including arrests, pre-trial detention, sentencing, and incarceration with Black, Latinx, and Indigenous Americans experiencing far harsher outcomes (National Academies Press, 2023). Because of the systemic racism imbued in the criminal justice system, BIPOC children and families are impacted more than their white peers (Rezal, 2021). In addition, the majority of incarcerated women are single mothers who are also survivors of domestic and/or sexual violence (Cox, 2017). Given the interplay of systemic racism, exposure to violence, and incarceration, it is important to consider how best to support children and families when a parent or caregiver goes to prison.  

Facts about parental incarceration in the United States:

  • One in every 14 children will experience a parent going to jail (Axelson & Boch, 2019). 

  • Viewed as a chronic health condition, parental incarceration would be the second most prevalent childhood condition (following asthma) (Axelson & Boch, 2019). 

  • Children are 10X more likely to have a parent go to prison than to be diagnosed with diabetes (Axelson & Boch, 2019). 

  • BIPOC Americans are imprisoned at more than 5X the rate of white Americans (Nellis, 2021) (The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2018).

  • 1 in 9 Black children have experienced a residential parent go to jail (Johnson & Arditti, 2023). 

  • Sixty three percent of BIPOC adults – almost two out of every three people – have had an immediate family member spend at least one night in jail or prison (Coronado, 2020). 

  • Since 2006, the children of over 32,000 parents have been permanently removed from their parents’ care (Coronado, 2020). 

Impact of Parental Incarceration

When a parent is incarcerated, there are several collateral consequences for a family. Children, families and communities are often profoundly impacted. Parental incarceration is a known Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE), a potentially traumatic childhood event linked to chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance misuse in adulthood (CDC, 2024). Although it is important to remember that each child, and situation, is unique, research has established a clear link between a parent’s incarceration and a host of potential threats to child wellbeing.  

Parental Incarceration ​​Impacts:

  • Mental health disorders: Evidence points to a significant increase in the rates of mental health disorders, including depression, among children of incarcerated parents. In addition, children are at higher risk for substance use disorder and suicidality (Martin, 2017). 

  • Educational attainment: Parental incarceration is correlated with lower rates of academic achievement, educational attainment, and higher rates of behavioral issues in school (Martin, 2017).

  • Financial wellbeing: When a parent goes to jail and can no longer earn income for the family, a child’s economic stability is often threatened. One study found that a child’s family income dropped by 22 percent on average when a father went to prison (Western & Pettit, 2010). 

  • Future criminal justice involvement: Research indicates that experiencing parental incarceration puts children at higher risk for criminal justice involvement themselves. Children of incarcerated parents are considered six times more likely to become involved in the adult criminal justice system than other children (Purvis, 2013).  

  • Child Welfare Involvement: Parental incarceration puts children at higher risk for involvement with the child welfare system, including entry into foster care (Luck, 2023). 

Strategies for helping children

Parental incarceration is considered a toxic stressor and can have lasting negative effects on children (KidsMates, 2019). As is true for any childhood experience of trauma or toxic stress it is important to create the experiences and conditions that build protective factors and reduce the likelihood of long-term negative outcomes. When appropriate and culturally relevant support is provided, children can not only heal but also develop resilience-building skills that will help them cope with, and overcome, future challenges. 

Talking to kids about incarceration

With parental permission, try to be as open and honest with children about their parent’s incarceration as possible.  Be prepared for the questions that will likely come as a result.  They will likely want to know why their parent is in prison and it is good to provide them with the reason in age-appropriate language (Harris, 2014). It’s okay to not have all of the answers and to say, “I don’t know the answer to that”. Check with the family about what has already been shared with the child and how and what information they would like shared with the child. 

Be sure children understand that the incarceration is not their fault. They need regular reassurance of this. It is ok to tell children that an incarcerated adult bears responsibility and that this does not make the parent a bad person. Remind children that it is okay to love their parent and be sad or mad. All those feelings can occur together. 

Be sure children have multiple trusted adults to discuss their parent’s incarceration with (Harris, 2014). Some of the adults in their life, such as the partner or parent of the incarcerated adult, may face additional stressors due to the incarceration and the child may not feel as though they can talk about their worries and fears openly. Having other supportive adults available, including therapists, counselors, teachers, extended family members can be helpful. 

Strategies for supporting kids

If the incarcerated parent is a positive, healthy part of their child’s life, it is important to support contact with the parent. In fact, most children want to maintain contact (KidsMates, 2019). The child should be given some authority in making this decision about contact. This may include decisions such as the type of contact and how often they have contact. They should also be given the opportunity to say “no” if they do not want to have contact and or change their minds.   

Feelings of shame and embarrassment are common for children of incarcerated parents (National Resource Center on Children & Families of the Incarcerated, 2014). An important strategy is to help them feel less alone.  If available, connect them to the people in their lives who have also been impacted by incarceration.  Look for support groups either in person or online.  Also, there are many books and videos for children that can help them feel less alone and reduce shame and stigma (Literacy Link, 2022).   

Additional support such as a mentoring program or mental health counseling can be very helpful for children and families ( These types of support may reduce the potential long term negative impact of parental incarceration. Connect children with culturally relevant activities and support that help them feel seen and loved and can experience feelings of connection and competence.  In addition, there are many programs designed specifically for children of incarcerated parents.  Please see resources below for more information about these.  

Strategies for contact/visitation

Depending on the correctional facility, there are a variety of types of potential contact. Children’s imaginations and the media may lead to scary thoughts about the prison setting, causing them to be frightened for their incarcerated parent. In addition, children may have direct experience with law enforcement or other state agents (for example through the witnessing of a caregiver’s arrest) that may make them justifiably fearful.  For this reason, video visits or in-person visits can be helpful to ease their mind (Mustin, 2014). For in-person visits it is important to describe the details of what will happen at the visit ahead of time. Children will likely have to go through a metal detector and will see corrections officers and other prisoners. This may provoke anxiety, so preparation is helpful. Having answers to their questions is important. For example, will they be able to touch their parent or hug them? Children may feel heightened emotions during the days before and after the visit. Keeping this in mind, it can be helpful to respond to difficult behaviors with patience and compassion and to continually check in with the child to create space for emotional processing (  

** These suggestions are predicated on the incarcerated parent being a healthy and safe caregiver.  If this is not the case, these suggestions for contact may be harmful to the child. In particular, in situations where there is a history of child abuse or domestic violence, rely on the guidance of a mental health professional and other family members. It is also important to follow any court order regarding visitation and/or contact parameters.  

Suggestions for the incarcerated parent

Do not rely on children to be communicative.  Many children do not enjoy talking on the phone and do not respond well to open-ended questions. It is helpful to ask them specific questions and to let it be okay if they do not seem talkative.  Find other ways to stay connected.  For example, learn about something they are interested in and talk with them about that. Or find a common point of interest through engaging in a virtual activity (such as reading a portion of a book as part of each phone call). Even if they do not provide an equal response to communication efforts, continue to make these efforts and take the lead in maintaining the relationship (Hembree, 2021). If calls are not fruitful, take the responsibility for writing regular letters to the child. This shows them that you are willing to put the effort into maintaining the relationship. 

Give your child permission to feel the range of emotions they may have.  This may include sadness and anger toward the incarcerated parent. In addition, take responsibility for the impact that this incarceration has had on their life. Apologize to them and be age appropriately honest with them about why this happened. 

Suggestions for the non-incarcerated parent

This can be an incredibly stressful, fearful time for the non-incarcerated parent.  The incarceration may have caused a rapid transition to life as a single parent, sole breadwinner, and experiencing the myriad of emotions that come with incarceration of someone they may love and/or rely on.  It is essential to get help and support (both practical and emotional)(Martoma, 2020).  Having mental health counseling can be an important outlet for this adjustment (Harris, 2014). Connecting the non-incarcerated parent/family with economic and other supports can help ease the stress and impact.  

It may be challenging to focus on being supportive of the children’s desire for a relationship with the incarcerated parents because of feelings of anger or frustration toward that parent, especially in cases of domestic violence.  It is important not to speak poorly about the incarcerated parent, as children have the right to love and miss the parent (The Literacy Link, 2022). Utilize supportive adults or counseling to express feelings about the incarcerated parent. You can still be honest with children about what the incarcerated parent has done without using blaming or shaming language or speaking negatively about them.  Although this is a challenging thing to do, it will help children with the many and often conflicting emotions they may be feeling.  

It often falls on the non-incarcerated parent or other family members to assist in maintaining the relationship between children and the incarcerated parent.  If domestic violence has been present in the relationship, utilize other adults to support you, such as an attorney or domestic violence advocate and or other family members.  Power and control can still be exerted from prison and guidance on your role as parent will help in these situations.  If children are being used by the incarcerated parent to exert power or control over the non-incarcerated parent, legal and mental health advice should be sought to determine if the children’s contact with the incarcerated parent is safe and in the best interest of the child.

Planning for after incarceration/re-entry

For children (and parents) there may be anxiety leading up to the incarcerated parent being released.  It is important for children to have an outlet to express these concerns. Recognize that transitions can be very difficult even if the transition involves something positive (like release from prison) ( Some of these transitions may be subtle while others may be major in the children’s lives (for example, a change in custody).  Maintaining the routine may help kids to feel safe and secure. Slowly introducing the previously incarcerated parent into an existing routine may ease the transition for everyone. 

Re-entering the community can be a very stressful transition for an incarcerated parent.  They will often have parole/probation expectations, transition from a very structured to a very unstructured environment and have many practical needs like finding a job and housing.  Therefore, reintroducing them into parenting responsibilities should occur slowly.  Their parenting skills have most likely not been heavily utilized while incarcerated. Parenting/re-entry programs can support the formerly incarcerated parents to refresh, and build skills to support a smoother transition.  In addition, be sure to have ample supports in place after release (The National Reentry Resource Center). 

Along with parenting/re-entry programs, there are also mental health treatment models that can help address the relationship between the previously incarcerated parent and the child.  For example, child parent psychotherapy is a model that is focused on improving the relationship between young children and their caregiver. With the primary focus being the parent-child relationship, skills related to communication and attunement are taught.  The goal of these skills is to heal the attachment relationship between child and parent. Because of this focus, CPP is ideal in situations such as parental incarceration, where the parent-child relationship has been disrupted.  In addition, there are other child trauma treatment models, such as trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (as well as others) that include skills to improve the parent-child relationship while helping the child heal from the disruption of incarceration.  These models can be most effective after re-entry and if the parent will be a consistent part of the child’s life. 

Hope and Healing

Although having an incarcerated family member is an adverse childhood experience (ACE) and can have a negative effect on children’s lives, there is hope. Research shows that children are able to develop resilience which is the ability to overcome serious hardship (Center on the Developing Child). Ann Masten, a renowned researcher of resilience in children, wrote, “Resilience does not come from rare and special qualities, but from the everyday magic of ordinary, normative human resources in the minds, brains, and bodies of children, in their families and relationships, and in their communities (Masten, 2001).” The single most common factor for children who develop resilience is one of these ordinary human resources. Research has shown that having at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult is one of the most important elements for children’s resilience (Center on the Developing Child).  

While family members are often the initial support system, other nurturing relationships can include teachers, neighbors, coaches, or other caring adults – including the incarcerated parent. When other adults become trusted supports, they can “empower children to manage the shame and stigma associated with parental incarceration; navigate difficult conversations and social situations; regulate their emotions and impulses; and develop the skills necessary to adapt to the instability (KidsMates, 2019).”  

Increasing supportive caregiver-child relationships are crucial protective factor for children with ACEs such as experiencing domestic violence and parental incarceration because these experiences may negatively shape brain architecture, gene expression, and physiological stress responses in ways that can influence lifelong learning, behavior, and health in some children (UCSF, 2023). These relationships can help buffer children from experiencing long term impacts. 

More Tips for Supporting Children when a Parent is in Prison (Martoma, 2020) 

There are many other ways to support a child who is experiencing incarceration within their family unit:

  • Be an anchor of support: The guidance and support of a trusted adult can aid in the development of skills that are needed for a child to work through the trauma of incarceration (Martoma, 2020).  

  • Keep open lines of communication: Communication is extremely important to children of incarcerated parents because they may experience difficult situations such as bullying and discrimination and need help navigating these complex issues. They may be getting questions from peers about their incarcerated parent, or they may have their own questions. They may also feel judgement and shame due to the incarceration. Keeping an open line of communication will help the child feel safe and secure and will allow them the ability to ask hard questions (Martoma, 2020). 

  • Prioritize stability: Children often have to cope with big losses while a parent is incarcerated. Parents and caregivers can ease this grief and trauma by creating a stable environment for the child to thrive. One way to do this is by setting up a routine for the child so that they know what to expect on a day-to-day basis (Martoma, 2020).

  • Encourage active skill building: Children can build resilience through a multitude of activities such as academia, sports, cultural activities, or any other hobby. This may help them build confidence, make friends and develop problem-solving skills in a fun and appropriate way. It may also help them channel their negative emotions in more positive ways (Martoma, 2020).

  • Involve other supportive adults: a wider network of supportive adults can help children continue to build resilience. The more people a child can trust and that can provide a stable and safe environment, the more likely the child will build resilience (Martoma, 2020).

  • Consider helping the child connect with their incarcerated parent: Many children with incarcerated parents want to stay connected. A recent (2020) study at Columbia University demonstrated that children have enduring affection and admiration even during a parent’s incarceration (KidsMates, 2019). If the parent relationship is a healthy and safe one, an incarcerated parent can still act as a caring and supportive adult in the child’s life. Despite numerous barriers to communication, staying connected can ease the pain of separation and helping the child find ways to connect with their parent while incarcerated may also help provide stability (Martoma, 2020).  

  • Look into programs that can help: There are many programs that the children may be eligible for including social welfare assistance or community programs that exist to support children of incarcerated parents (Martoma, 2020). Connect families with other services and economic supports that can help ease the burden and stress caused by a family member being incarcerated.

  • Supportive adults can help children develop resilience using the KidsMates’ C.A.R.E.S. Approach (KidsMates, 2019): 

    • Create a safe environment for the child to speak freely. 
    • Acknowledge and validate the child’s concerns. 
    • Reassure the child that they are not alone. 
    • Encourage active play and skill-building. 
    • Share honest and age-appropriate information with the child. 

The Bill of Rights for Children of Incarcerated Parents:

The Bill of Rights was developed in 2005 by the San Francisco Partnership for Children of Incarcerated Parents in partnership with youth with incarcerated parents. It is a road map of reform for safeguarding children whose parents are involved in the criminal justice system.  

  • I have the right to be kept safe and informed at the time of my parent’s arrest. 

  • I have the right to be heard when decisions are made about me. 

  • I have the right to be considered when decisions are made about my parent. 

  • I have the right to be well cared for in my parent’s absence. 

  • I have the right to speak with, see and touch my parent. 

  • I have the right to support as I face my parent’s incarceration. 

  • I have the right not to be judged, blamed or labeled because my parent is incarcerated. 

  • I have the right to a lifelong relationship with my parent (Project Avery). 

*The work of the Marin Coalition is based on the SFCIP and the SF Bill of Rights for Children of Incarcerated Parents. (Project Avery).”