Skip navigation
The Habeas Citebook: Prosecutorial Misconduct - Header

Children of Incarcerated Parents C W Simmons 2000

Download original document:
Brief thumbnail
This text is machine-read, and may contain errors. Check the original document to verify accuracy.
Children of
Incarcerated Parents

By Charlene Wear Simmons, Ph.D.

Prepared at the Request of
Assemblymember Kerry Mazzoni

MARCH 2000

CRB Note Vol. 7, No. 2

INTRODUCTION
Children whose parents have been arrested and incarcerated face unique difficulties.
Many have experienced the trauma of sudden separation from their sole caregiver, and
most are vulnerable to feelings of fear, anxiety, anger, sadness, depression and guilt.
They may be moved from caretaker to caretaker. The behavioral consequences can be
severe, absent positive intervention—emotional withdrawal, failure in school,
delinquency and risk of intergenerational incarceration.1 Yet these children seem to fall
through the cracks. Police do not routinely ask at the time of arrest whether their
prisoners have children, nor do sentencing judges or correctional agencies regularly raise
this question. Since no agency collects data about these children, “…it is unclear how
many are affected, who they are, or where they live.”2
Assemblymember Kerry Mazzoni requested that the California Research Bureau (CRB)
conduct a broad research review to summarize what is known about the children of
incarcerated parents. This CRB note estimates the number of children in California who
have parents in the state’s criminal justice system (jail, prison, parole and probation) and
summarizes key findings from the research literature. Although considerable information
has been generated in a number of small-scale studies, the Child Welfare League of
America concludes “…the true scope of the problem is uncertain because few reliable
statistics exist.”3

California Research Bureau, California State Library

1

HOW MANY CHILDREN?
An estimated 856,000 children in California have a parent currently involved in
California’s adult criminal justice system, nearly nine percent of the state’s children. 4
This is an estimate because California does not request or keep family information about
arrested or convicted persons. We estimate that approximately 195,000 children
currently have parents in state prison, 97,000 have parents in jail, and 564,000 children
have parents on parole or probation (Chart 1). The assumptions on which these estimates
are based are explained below.
Over time many more children are affected, as some parents leave the system while new
ones are arrested. Thus the total impact of the criminal justice system on the state’s
children, families and communities is much larger over time. By way of comparison,
while an estimated 1.5 million children nationwide have incarcerated parents, around 10
million more have parents who were imprisoned at some point in their children’s lives.5
Chart 1

Children with Parents in California's
Adult Criminal Justice System

State Prison
195,000

Parole & Probation
564,000

County Jail
97,000

State Prisons
There are approximately 195,000 children in California who currently have a parent in
state prison, an estimate derived from the following statistics. Around 165,000 adults are
incarcerated in California prisons, of which 93 percent are men and seven percent are
women.6 About 80 percent of the women prisoners are parents with an average of two
children each—nearly 20,000 children.7 Around seven percent of incarcerated women
give birth while in California prisons.8 An estimated 56 percent of the male prisoners
nationally are parents, with an average of two children each.

California Research Bureau, California State Library

2

County Jails
An estimated 79,000 adults (average daily census) are incarcerated in California jails, 12
percent of whom are women.9 Assuming that the percentages of jailed prisoners with
children, and the average number of children, are roughly equivalent to those of the
prison population (the literature on jailed parents is remarkably thin), there are
approximately 97,000 children in California with parents in jail.
Parole and Probation
There are nearly 115,000 adults who were formerly in prison currently being supervised
on parole,10 and 350,000 adults who were formerly in jail currently being supervised on
probation.11 Slightly more than 10 percent are females (10.6 percent). Assuming that the
ratios of parents and numbers of children are approximately the same as with the adult
prison population, another 564,000 children currently have parents under supervision by
California’s adult criminal justice system.
Demographic Data
A 1992 Assembly Office of Research report, Children of Incarcerated Parents, found
“very little accurate information regarding these children.”12 The report noted that,
“These children are not recognized as a group by any state agency or department in
California.”13 This is still the case. The police and courts do not regularly inquire at the
time of arrest or sentencing whether a prisoner has children. One prominent researcher
contends that “…these children have tended to be ignored by the criminal justice and
social services systems…” and she decries the “…glaring shortage of current information
regarding these children.”14 It is not possible to accurately specify numbers, ages,
gender, or location.

California Research Bureau, California State Library

3

IMPACT OF PARENTAL ARREST AND INCARCERATION
The children were found to have experienced emotional problems,
nightmares, fighting in school and a decline in academic performance
as a result of being separated due to their mother’s incarceration.15
The impact of a mother’s arrest and incarceration on a family is often more disruptive
than that of a father’s arrest and incarceration.16 That is because approximately twothirds of incarcerated mothers were the primary caregivers for at least one child before
they were arrested.17 About 60 percent of children live with grandparents (usually
maternal) after their mother’s incarceration, 17 percent live with other relatives and a
quarter live with non-relatives (often in foster care).18 In contrast, only half of
incarcerated fathers were living with their youngest child prior to incarceration, and most
of their children (nearly 90 percent) continued to live with their mothers after the
incarceration.
A significant number of children are present at the time of their parents’ arrest. For
example, a survey of jailed mothers in Riverside, California, found that one in five of
their children were present at the time of their arrest, and over half of the children were
between three and six years old.19
A number of small-scale studies20 suggest that the effects of parental arrest and
incarceration on a child’s development are profound. The children may suffer from
multiple psychological problems including trauma, anxiety, guilt, shame, and fear.21
Negative behavioral manifestations can include sadness, withdrawal, low self-esteem,
decline in school performance, truancy, and use of drugs or alcohol and aggression.22 A
study of 36 children from five to 16 years old who were participating in a visitation
program at a women’s prison, found that three quarters of the children reported
“…symptoms including depression, difficulty in sleeping, concentration problems, and
flashbacks about their mother’s crimes or arrests…[and] poor school performance.”23
Table 1
Children’s Problems as Identified by Their Caregivers
Learning/school
Health/mental health
Behavioral
Teen pregnancy
Alcohol or drug
Other

Percent
28.8
3.0
27.3
1.5
3.0
10.6

Source: National Council on Crime and Delinquency, 1993

California Research Bureau, California State Library

4

Dr. Denise Johnston, Director of the Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents at
Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena, California, has studied the impact of parental crime,
arrest and incarceration on children’s development. Her work is summarized in Table 2.
Table 2
Possible Developmental Effects on Children of Parental Crime, Arrest,
and Incarceration
Developmental
Stage
Infancy
(0-2 years)
Early childhood
(2-6 years)

Middle childhood
(7-10 years)

Early adolescence
(11-14 years)

Late adolescence
(15-18 years)

Developmental
Characteristics
Total dependency
Increased perception
and mobility;
incomplete
individuation from
parent
Increased
independence, ability
to reason, importance
of peers
Increasing abstract
thinking, futureoriented behavior,
aggression, puberty
Emotional crisis and
confusion, adult sexual
development, abstract
thinking,
independence

Developmental
Tasks

Influencing
Factors

Effects

Attachment and
trust

Parent-child
separation

Impaired parent-child
bonding

Sense of autonomy,
independence and
initiative

Parent-child
separation;
Trauma

Anxiety,
developmental
regression, acute
traumatic stress,
survivor guilt

Sense of industry,
ability to work
productively

Parent-child
separation,
enduring trauma

Acute traumatic stress
and reactive behaviors

Parent-child
separation,
enduring trauma

Rejection of limits on
behavior, traumareactive behaviors

Parent-child
separation,
enduring trauma

Premature termination
of parent-child
relationship;
intergenerational
crime and
incarceration

Ability to work
productively with
others, control of
emotions
Achieves identity,
engages in adult
work and
relationships,
resolves conflicts
with family and
society

Source: Dr. Denise Johnston, “Effects of Parental Incarceration,” in Gabel and Johnston, p. 68.

It is difficult for parents to maintain contact with their children while they are
incarcerated. More than half of incarcerated mothers do not receive any visits from their
children while they are in prison. The single most significant reason for lack of contact is
the children’s distance from their mothers’ prisons, many of which are located far from
major population centers. In California, 60 percent of women prison inmates are from
Southern California but the two largest women’s prisons, Central California Women’s
Facility and the Valley State Prison for Women, are located near Chowchilla, about 260
miles north of Los Angeles.
Multiple parental arrests and the resulting pattern of repeated parent-child separation can
be devastating for children and have severe social consequences, such as delinquency and
intergenerational incarceration. Dr. Johnston examined a group of older children of
offenders, the majority of whom were gang-involved or delinquent, and found that
“…only one in 11 children studied had lived continuously with one primary caregiver
since birth.”24

California Research Bureau, California State Library

5

According to the Women’s Prison & Home Association, Inc., “Children of offenders are
five times more likely than their peers to end up in prison themselves. One in 10 will
have been incarcerated before reaching adulthood.”25 Table 3 charts the interconnecting
pattern of childhood trauma, emotional response, reactive behavior and potential criminal
activity that can lead to intergenerational incarceration absent positive intervention.
Table 3
Intergenerational Behaviors, Crime and Incarceration
Childhood
Trauma

Emotional
Response

Reactive
Behavior

Coping Pattern

Criminal Activity

Physical abuse

Anger

Physical
aggression

Fighting with
peers

Assault

Parent-child
separation

Sadness, grief

Withdrawal

Substance abuse

Drug possession

Witness to violence

Anxiety

Hypervigilence

Gang activity

Accessory to
homicide

Parental substance
abuse

Anger

Verbal aggression

Asocial behavior
(lying, stealing)

Fraud

Sexualized
Promiscuity
Prostitution
behavior
Source: Dr. Denise Johnston, “Effects of Parental Incarceration,” in Gabel and Johnston, p. 81.
Sexual molestation

Fear, anxiety

Although the children of incarcerated parents are at high risk for negative personal and
social behaviors, their lack of visibility in the criminal justice and child welfare systems
can inhibit positive intervention and may led to neglect. Most jurisdictions do not request
or collect family information from prisoners. Very few require law enforcement officers
to inquire at the time of arrest whether a prisoner has children.26 The courts do not
routinely inquire whether a prisoner has children at the time of sentencing, missing
another opportunity to identify the children and intervene if needed.
An American Bar Association (ABA) study found that “While law enforcement policies
and procedures specifically addressing children of arrestees may not currently exist in
most agencies, the issue of accountability–and subsequently legal liability–is nevertheless
present.”27 The courts have found that officers have a duty to reasonably ensure the
safety of children left unattended following a caretaker’s arrest [White v. Rochford, 592
F2d 381 (7th Cir. 1979)]. The ABA study found that law enforcement officers make a
variety of placement decisions in the field, calling in child protective services (CPS),
taking the child to the police station, or informally placing the child with the parent’s
neighbors, relatives or friends. Anecdotal information suggests that the children of
incarcerated parents sometimes end up in court when they are ready to enter school and
need vaccinations, having been informally left with friends or relatives who lack legal
authority for their medical care.28

California Research Bureau, California State Library

6

A PROFILE OF INCARCERATED MOTHERS
According to a 1987 national study by the American Correctional Association, the
average adult female offender is a minority between the ages of 25 and 29 who before
arrest was a single parent living with one to three children. She comes from a single
parent or broken home. Half of her other family members are incarcerated, including 54
percent of her brothers and sisters. She is a high school drop out, unemployed, likely to
have been the victim of sexual abuse, started using alcohol or drugs between the ages of
13 and 14, and has “…committed crimes for the following primary reasons: to pay for
drugs, relieve economic pressures, or poor judgement.”29 More recent studies confirm
this general description.30
Table 4
History of Physical or Sexual Abuse and Substance Abuse
of Incarcerated Mothers (1991)
Physical Abuse at some time
Sexual Abuse at some time
Regular use of alcohol or drugs

Percent*
52.8
41.7
64.5

*Percentages represent those with affirmative response for each type of abuse.
Source: National Council on Crime and Delinquency, 1993.

California has the largest female prison population in the United States.31 The number of
adult women incarcerated in California prisons increased nearly nine times between 1980
and 1998, from 1,316 to 11,694. In 1998, 43 percent of California’s women felons were
incarcerated for drug crimes,i 30 percent for property crimesii and 24 percent for crimes
against other people.iii The number imprisoned for drug crimes more than tripled
between 1983 and 1998, while the number of imprisoned for violent crimes declined (see
Chart 2.). National research finds an even larger proportional increase in women’s
imprisonment due to drug crimes: “The number of women incarcerated in state prisons
for a drug offense rose by 888% from 1986 to 1996.”32

ii

Possession, possession for sale, manufacturing and sales.
Burglary, theft, forgery/fraud.
iii
Homicide, robbery, assault and battery, sex offenses, kidnapping.
ii

California Research Bureau, California State Library

7

Chart 2

California Incarcerated Females by Offense
50.0%
45.0%

42.7%

41.4%

41.2%

1983
1998

40.0%
35.0%
29.5%
30.0%
23.8%
25.0%
20.0%
13.2%
15.0%
10.0%
4.2%

4.0%

5.0%
0.0%
Person

Propery

Drug

Other

Offense

A 1995 study of California’s female prisoners found that their “…involvement in
criminal behavior is tied directly to drug use and a lack of viable economic skills.”33 The
U.S. Department of Justice found that nationwide, while violent crimes decreased, the
increase in “…sentenced drug offenders accounted for 55% of the increase in the female
prison population between 1986 and 1991.”34 Drug abuse can lead to repeated
incarceration. A 1991 study of state female prisoners by the U.S. Department of Justice,
Bureau of Justice Statistics, found that 29 percent had no prior sentence, 22 percent had
one prior sentence, 15 percent had two priors, 20 percent had three to five priors, and 15
percent had six or more prior sentences.35

California Research Bureau, California State Library

8

The pattern of crime for incarcerated women is quite different from that of incarcerated
men in California. Men are much more likely to be imprisoned for violent crimes (Chart
3).
Chart 3

California Incarcerated Felons
by Offense Category and Sex, 1998
50%

45.0%
42.7%

45%

Male
Female

40%
35%

29.5%
26.6%

30%
23.8%
21.8%

25%
20%
15%

6.7%

10%

4.0%
5%
0%
Person

Propery

Drug

Other

Offense

California Research Bureau, California State Library

9

KEY ISSUES RAISED IN THIS REVIEW
This CRB research note raises a number of issues that merit summarizing.
First, research findings about the children of incarcerated parents are primarily based on
small-scale studies or on surveys of prisoners. A great deal is not known about the
children or their caregivers.
Second, although law enforcement and the criminal justice system profoundly intervene
in children’s lives when their parents are arrested and incarcerated, there is no clear
official policy about how officials should respond. Yet law enforcement officials may be
liable. Some children appear to fall through the cracks and are left in legally ambiguous
situations, such as with neighbors. In addition, the courts and the correctional system do
not regularly request or collect information about prisoners’ families. The informal legal
status of some children’s caregivers, and lack of court supervision, may lead to
inappropriate placements.
Third, the children of incarcerated parents are at high risk for a number of negative
behaviors that can lead in some instances, absent positive intervention, to school failure,
delinquency and intergenerational incarceration. The personal and social costs are high.
Fourth, the lack of research and official information means that government programs do
not target these children and their caregivers in order to design or provide needed
services. The public monetary costs of current services, and the costs of not providing
useful interventions, cannot be accurately calculated.
Fifth, there may be a more pressing and poignant need to address this issue. Under the
federal Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, parental rights can be terminated if a
child has been in foster care 15 of the last 22 months. A recent Government Accounting
Office (GAO) report finds that the maximum median sentence for female offenders in
state and local prisons is 60 months.36
1

Cynthia Seymour, “Children with Parents in Prison: Child Welfare Policy, Program, and Practice Issues,”
Child Welfare, Special Issue, Children with Parents in Prison, Child Welfare League of America,
Vol. LXXVII, September/October 1996, p. 472.
2
Op. cit., p. 470.
3
Ibid.
4
There are about 9.8 million children ages 0-18 in California, more than 29 percent of the state’s
population. U.S. Census Bureau, March 1999 Current Population Survey.
5
The Women’s Prison Association & Home, Inc., Family to Family; Partnerships between Corrections
and Child Welfare, Part Two, A Project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, p. 8.
6
Legislative Analyst Office, “Department of Corrections,” LAO Analysis of the 1999-00 Budget,
Sacramento, January 2000, and California Department of Corrections, California Prisoners and Parolees,
1999, p. 46.
7
Barbara Bloom, “Imprisoned Mothers,” in Children of Incarcerated Parents, edited by Katherine Gabel
and Denise Johnston, M.D.,Lexington Books, New York, 1995, p. 21. Some girls in the state’s juvenile
facilities are mothers; their children are not included in this estimate.

California Research Bureau, California State Library

10

8

The California Department of Corrections, the Department of Social Services and the County of Madera
have begun keeping information about the children born to state prisoners and their siblings, to ensure that
mothers are well informed when they decide where to place their children.
9
Board of Corrections, Jail Profile Survey; 1999, 3rd Quarter Survey Results, Sacramento, California, 1999.
10
California Department of Corrections, CDC Facts, October 1, 1999, www.cdc.state.ca.us/factsht.htm.
11
Marcus Nieto, The Changing Role of Probation in California’s Criminal Justice System, California
Research Bureau, California State Library, July 1996, p. 15.
12
Sharron Lawhorn, Children of Incarcerated Parents; A Report to the Legislature Pursuant to ACR 38
(Resolution Chapter 89, Statutes of 1991, Filante), Assembly Office of Research, May 1992, Cover Letter.
13
Op. cit., p. 1.
14
Barbara Bloom, “Public Policy and the Children of Incarcerated Parents,” in Gabel and Johnston, p. 271.
15
Susan M. Hunter, “Forward,” in Gabel and Johnston, p. ix.
16
Barbara Bloom, Imprisoned Mothers,” in Gable and Johnston, p. 21.
17
U.S. GAO, Women in Prison, Washington, D.C., December 1999, p. 32. Earlier studies found that 70
percent of incarcerated women lived with their children prior to arrest. (See The Women’s Prison
Association & Home, Inc., Family to Family; Partnerships between Corrections and Child Welfare, Part
Two, A Project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, p. 8.
18
Barbara Bloom and David Steinhart, Why Punish the Children? National Council on Crime and
Delinquency, 1993, p. 31. A Massachusetts study found that 25 percent of the children of incarcerated
women in the state were in foster or group care, while 75 percent lived with relatives or friends.
19
Johnston, Jailed Mothers, Pasadena, California, Pacific Oaks Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents,
1991.
20
According to Seymour, “Much of the research on children with incarcerated parents has been
methodologically limited. Many of the studies used relatively small samples and inadequate comparison
groups. There have been no longitudinal studies following children through different phases of parental
incarceration and release. Few studies have employed standardized assessment of children and almost no
research has been conducted through direct contact with children.” Child Welfare League of America, pp.
471-472.
21
The Women’s Prison Association & Home, Inc., Family to Family; Partnerships between Corrections
and Child Welfare, Part Two, A Project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, p. 8.
22
Lawhorn, p. 5.
23
Christina Jose Kampfner, “Post-Traumatic Stress Reactions in Children of Imprisoned Mothers,” in
Gabel and Johnston, p. 95.
24
Denise Johnston, p. 75.
25
Ibid.
26
Op. cit., p. 60.
27
Barbara E. Smith, Sharon Goretsky Elstein, Children on Hold: Improving The Response to Children
Whose Parents are Arrested and Incarcerated, ABA Center of Children and the Law, December 1994, p. 6.
28
Judge Donna Petre, Yolo County Superior Court.
29
American Correctional Association, The Female Offender, 1990, p. 6
30
See for example, GAO, Women in Prison; Issues and Challenges Confronting U.S. Correctional
Systems, December 1999, Appendix III.
31
U.S. GAO, Women in Prison, Washington, D.C., December 1999, p. 18.
32
Marc Mauer, Cathy Potler, Richard Wolf, “The Impact of the Drug Wars on Women: A Comparative
Analysis in Three States,” Women, Girls & Criminal Justice, February/March 2000, p. 21.
33
Barbara Owen and Barbara Bloom, Profiling the Needs of California’s Female Prisoners, February
1995, p. 2.
34
U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Women in Prison; Survey of State Prison
Inmates, 1991, p. 3.
35
U.S. Department of Justice, p. 4.
36
U.S. GAO, p. 30.

California Research Bureau, California State Library

11

 

 

The Habeas Citebook Ineffective Counsel Side
PLN Subscribe Now Ad 450x450
CLN Subscribe Now Ad 450x600