5 Million Kids in the US Have Had a Parent Imprisoned, Data Shows


A study published this week shows that earlier estimates of parental incarceration were well below the more than 5 million US children who have had a live-in parent imprisoned. The nonprofit Child Trends research group analyzed the effects of parental incarceration on children, which comes at the same time that President Barack Obama is making criminal justice reform a priority as his second term ends.

Reuters reports that the 5 million children include kids up to 18 who have had a parent who lived in the same house with them having been sent to prison. These numbers come from a 2011-2012 survey by the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Child Trends reported that in 2007, the estimate of the number of children who had a parent in prison was 1.7 million, which included non-residential parents. The current report found that black, poor, and rural kids were more likely to have a parent who resided with them go to prison or jail. Black young people were approximately twice as likely as white children to have a parent serving time.

Previous research has reported links between parental imprisonment and health or behavior difficulties in kids. Other connections included poor school performance and both physical and mental health problems well into adulthood, according to Child Trends.

One change that can make a significant difference for a child is to improve communication between the parent and the son or daughter. Another effective move is to reduce the “stigma of incarceration” and to make visitations more comfortable for the child, said the report.

Children who have parents who are behind bars can suffer from low self-esteem, compromised mental and physical health, and other damaging consequences. The Child Trends report “Parents Behind Bars: What Happens to Their Children?” was written in hopes that the findings would encourage prisons, schools, and legislators to come up with ways to assist young people who are living with having a parent incarcerated, says Melanie Eversley, reporting for USA Today.

“The issue of what some people have termed mass incarceration in the United States has really attracted a lot of attention so we were interested in looking at this issue,” David Murphey, report co-author and senior research scientist at Child Trends, said in a telephone interview with USA TODAY. “We feel it’s important to put this on the radar screen” and help people “realize there’s more to it than the adults themselves,” Murphey said.

Incarceration does not exist in a vacuum. It usually coincides with divorce, drug abuse, domestic violence, and other issues that are traumatic to children. And families are reluctant to talk about the problems, says Deborah Jiang-Stein, a Minneapolis-based author and inmate-advocate.

Jared Keller of Pacific Standard Magazine quoted the report:

“Having an imprisoned parent is an example of a loss that is not socially approved or (often) supported.”

Keller believes the solution include getting rid of mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses; overhauling the bail system; reigning in fanatical prosecutors; and eliminating racism from every part of the criminal justice system.

David Crary, reporting for The Associated Press, writes about New Hope Oklahoma, an organization that offers kids who have parents in prison after-school programs, weekend retreats, and summer camps. These kinds of safety nets for children are, however, rare.

But in Washington state, child-friendly visiting areas have been included in all prisons. Southeast Michigan has a plan that includes playful two-hour visits for imprisoned parents and their children.

Groups advocating for these kids have also pressed prison officials to ensure that visitation protocols, such as processing in and searches, are easy on children.