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Parents
Behind Bars
What Happens to Their Children?
David Murphey and P. Mae Cooper
October 2015

childtrends.org

TABLE OF CONTENTS
Overview	1
Key Findings and Implications	1
Background	2
Results	

3

Who experiences parental incarceration?	3
Children with an incarcerated parent are more likely
to experience additional adverse events	

4

What other aspects of child well-being are related to parental
incarceration, after accounting for other confounding influences?	6
Discussion	8
Implications	9
Acknowledgments	

10

Data Source	

11

Methods	

11

Outcome Variable Definitions	

12

References	

15

Appendices	

17

Parents Behind Bars

OVERVIEW
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.

Key Findings and Implications
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
More than five
incarcerated.
This is important new information. In 2007, the most recent pointin-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.

Parents Behind Bars

million U.S. children
have had a parent
in prison. (This is
almost certainly an
underestimate.)

1

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.

While the best long-term solution may be to reduce reliance
on imprisonment as a sanction for some categories of criminal
behavior, there may also be ways to mitigate the harm of parental
imprisonment for children. Research on interventions for children
with incarcerated parents is limited, but work so far suggests that
reducing the trauma and stigma these children experience, improving
communications between the child and the incarcerated parent, and
making visits with the incarcerated parent more child-friendly may
alleviate some of the negative effects of this separation.

Reducing the
stigma these children
experience ... may
alleviate some of the
negative effects of
this separation.

BACKGROUND
In 2007 (the most recent point-in-time estimate), 1.7 million children younger than 18 had a parent
currently in state or federal prison.1 This should not come as a surprise, when we consider that, in
2013, there were 1.6 million people held in prisons in the United States.2 U.S. incarceration rates,
although they have been declining recently, exceed those of any other reporting country.3,a
Recently, leaders across the political spectrum have begun to re-examine the policies that led to the
massive growth in incarceration over the last generation. Incarceration is costly, the evidence for its
deterrence value is mixed, and it has disproportionately affected people who are poor and black,
exacerbating existing social inequities.4 There is also increased attention being paid to the negative
effects of incarceration on already-disadvantaged communities. For example, some researchers
have argued that by reducing neighborhood human capital, high incarceration rates (as well as
poorer employment prospects after release) contribute to community unemployment, as well as to
a decline in prospects for marriage or other committed adult relationships.5
In many communities in the United States today, considerable numbers of children may experience
a residential parent going to jail or prison. The great majority of incarcerated parents (99 percent)
are fathers. However, the number of women in prison and their
percentage of the incarcerated population have both been growing.6
U.S incarceration
Maternal incarceration can be especially hard on a child, because
rates exceed those of mothers are more likely to have been the primary caregiver.7

any other reporting
country.

For the large subset of prisoners who are parents, incarceration
poses unique challenges. There are the obvious difficulties in
maintaining parent-child relationships during the period of
incarceration, but there are other problems as well, both during
imprisonment and following release. These affect the incarcerated parent, their children, and the
caregivers of those children. Incarceration can mean the loss of that parent’s income; it strains
marital relationships and frequently contributes to divorce.8
There is a substantial body of literature detailing the negative implications of parental incarceration
for child well-being. Research has linked parental incarceration to childhood health problems,
a	

Among the countries included in this analysis are the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, Canada, Spain, Germany, and
Australia. Data are as reported to the International Centre for Prison Studies.

Parents Behind Bars

2

2

including asthma, depression, and anxiety;9 acting-out behavior;10 grade retention;11 stigma;12 and, in
adulthood, an increased likelihood of poor mental or physical health.13,b
In some cases there can be positive effects when a parent is incarcerated, namely, when the parent
is abusive or otherwise poses a danger to the child (through substance abuse, for example).14
Nonetheless, most research finds negative outcomes associated with incarceration.15
It is difficult to identify the unique effects of parental incarceration on children, as its occurrence
tends to be associated with numerous other risk factors. As an example, people in poor
communities are more likely to be incarcerated. So, if a child with an incarcerated parent has
problems in school (for example), it can be challenging to disentangle the effects of parental
incarceration from those of other risk factors, such as experiencing extreme poverty. Complicating
matters further, parental incarceration can also exacerbate these associated risk factors, through
loss of income, for example.16
There are few studies that adequately control for these factors. Most take advantage of data
sets where children are followed for multiple years, a design that allows for comparison between
children’s characteristics before and after parental incarceration.17 Relying on cross-sectional
data,c as we do here, especially when the timing of parental incarceration is not specified, limits our
ability to infer cause and effect. In other words, particular child outcomes may have been present
before incarceration, or may have been related to the risk factors that led to incarceration. However,
by controlling for confounding factors and analyzing the data within specific age blocks, we can
obtain a more nuanced picture of how parental incarceration and child outcomes are associated at
several developmental periods.

RESULTS
Who experiences parental incarceration?
One in 14 U.S. children. According to their parents, nearly seven percent of children in the United
States have lived with a parent who was incarcerated at some time after the child’s birth. This
amounts to more than five million children, ages birth through 17, as of 2011-12. Among children
younger than 6, the rate is 5 percent. Among those ages 6 to 11, and 12 to 17, the rate is 8 percent
each. Because the prevalence is about the same among younger and older school-age children, we
can infer that most initial episodes of parental incarceration occurred before the child was 9—after
which rates remain relatively stable. (See Figure 1.)

b

All of the cited studies included at least some controls for confounding factors.	

c

Cross-sectional data provide a snapshot at a given point in time.

Parents Behind Bars

3

Figure 1.Percentage
Percentage ofof
children
with an
incarcerated
parent,* by age, 2011-12
Children
with
an Incarcerated

Parent,* by Age, 2011-12

15.0

10.0

Percent

9.5

9.4
7.8

7.6
5.7

7.5

6.5

5.0

1.8
0.0

0

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

13

14

15

16

17

*Children with incarcerated parents are those who ever had a residential parent go to jail or prison.
Source: Child Trends’ analysis of the National Survey of Children's Health.

Black children, disproportionately. About twice as high a percentage of black children as white
children have experienced parental incarceration (11.5 and 6.0 percent, respectively, or 1 in 9,
compared with 1 in 17). Looking at just 12- to 17-year-old black children (born between 1994 and
1999), it reaches 13.6 percent, or nearly 1 in 7 children who have ever had a parent incarcerated.
Given the high percentage of single-parent families in the black community,18 this statistic is likely
an underestimate of the disparity, since it does not include non-residential parents who have spent
time in jail or prison.
Poor children. Children living in poverty are more than three times as likely to have experienced the
incarceration of a parent as children in families with incomes at least twice the poverty level (12.5
versus 3.9 percent).
Children whose parents have little education. Children who have no resident parent with more than
a high school education are 41 percent more likely to have experienced parental incarceration than
are children with at least one parent who has had some education beyond high school (8.2 and 5.8
percent, respectively). Note that because this measure refers to resident parents only, the education
of a currently incarcerated parent is not included.
Rural children. Children living outside metropolitan areas are more likely to have experienced
parental incarceration than those living in metropolitan areas (10.7 versus 6.3 percent, respectively).
Further details for these findings can be found in Appendix 1.

Children with an incarcerated parent are more likely to experience additional
adverse events
The incarceration of a parent is an event included in many lists of adverse childhood experiences
(ACEs), along with witnessing domestic violence, living with a person who is mentally ill or suicidal,
and other negative circumstances.19 ACEs are exposures that are associated with increased risk for
trauma, or toxic stress, particularly when they are cumulative. While some level of stress can be
manageable or even positive, sustained or extreme stress can lead to various kinds of physiological
dysfunction, disease, and early mortality.20

Parents Behind Bars

4

When a child’s parent is incarcerated,
traumatic stress may occur through
multiple pathways. First, it involves the
loss of an attachment figure, and may
be particularly troubling to the child
because the loss is not easily explained
or understood. Second, whether or not
the child witnesses the parent’s arrest,
he or she may have ongoing, if sporadic,
contact with law enforcement, judicial,
corrections, and child welfare systems,
all of which can contribute to further
traumatization.21
On average, children who had ever had a
resident parent incarcerated experienced
2.7 other ACEs, out of the eight included
in the survey (see “Outcome Variables
Definitions” for a complete listing).
Children without experience of parent
incarceration had, on average, 0.7 ACEs.
This pattern held with all age groups. Among children younger than 6, the ones with an incarcerated
parent had 1.6 more ACEs than children who had never experienced parental incarceration. For
children 6 to 11 the increment was 1.7 ACEs; and for children 12 to 17, 2.2.
Among children who ever had an incarcerated parent:

•	

More than half had lived with someone who had a substance abuse problem, compared with
less than 10 percent among children with no parental incarceration.

•	

Nearly 3 in 5 had experienced parental divorce or
separation, compared with 1 in 5 among children without
parental incarceration.

•	

More than one-third had witnessed violence between
their parents or guardians, and one-third had witnessed
or experienced violence in their neighborhood. Less than
10 percent of those without an incarcerated parent had
experienced either one.

•	

More than 1 in 4 had lived with someone who was mentally
ill or suicidal, and nearly 1 in 10 had experienced the death
of a parent (see Figure 2).

Parents Behind Bars

More than half of
children who have
had an incarcerated
parent have also
lived with someone
who had a substance
abuse problem.

5

Figure 2. Parental incarceration is associated with numerous other adverse childhood
experiences, 2011-12

Parental Incarceration is Associated with Numerous
Other Adverse Childhood Experiences, 2011-12

100.0

Incarcerated Parent

80.0

57.0

60.0
Percent

No Incarcerated Parent

54.7

46.8
36.9

40.0

32.7

27.8

24.1
17.3

20.0

9.8
2.6
0.0

Parental
Frequent
socioeconomic divorce or
hardship
separation*

Parental
death*

6.8

5.1
Domestic
abuse**

7.2

Neighborhood Mentally ill or
violence**
suicidal
person***

*Resident parent
**Victim or witness to
*** Residence with
Source: Child Trends’ analysis of the National Survey of Children's Health.

7.4

8.1

3.8

Person with
Racial
substance discrimination
abuse
problem***

What other aspects of child well-being are related to parental incarceration, after
accounting for other confounding influences?
Because this was an exploratory study, we examined the association between parental incarceration
and a number of child well-being indicators. Detail on all of these measures is provided in the text
box, “Outcome Variables Definitions.”
For children younger than 6, we examined risk for developmental delay, measures of flourishing, and
positive parent-child interaction. For older children, we examined school engagement and problems
in school, participation in sports or clubs, parental aggravation, and emotional difficulties. For older
children, we also looked at several indicators of positive family functioning, including the child’s
attendance at religious services, family meals, the responding parent’s ability to “talk about things
that really matter” with the child, and the number of the child’s friends that the parent knows. For all
children (through age 17), we examined the number of additional ACEs.
We examined each of the measures for older children separately for two age groups: ages 6
to 11, and 12 to 17. Frequencies overall on these measures, and separately by whether the child
experienced parental incarceration, are reported in appendices 2 and 3.
For each outcome, we used a model that controlled for:

d

•	

demographic variables, including the child’s gender, race/ethnicity, poverty level, family
structure (two parents, single mother, etc.), and age; and

•	

other adverse childhood experiences,d including
o	

parental divorce or separation,

o	

death of a parent,

o	

witnessing domestic violence or violence in the community, and

o	

living with someone who had mental health issues or a substance abuse problem.

Individual ACEs were not included as predictors when the outcome measure was “total number of ACEs.”	

Parents Behind Bars

6

Our approach allows us to examine the association between parental
incarceration and well-being measures, independent of the effects of
these other variables. We also tested the robustness of the model by
varying which control variables were included; results were the same in
all but one of the models. More detail on the methodology used can be
found in “Methods,” toward the end of the report.

What we found:
As expected, controlling for the differences in demographic characteristics
between children with and without an incarcerated parent reduced the
number of significant associations between parental incarceration and
child well-being. However, some remained—suggesting that, even among
children who face multiple difficult circumstances, having a parent
imprisoned conveys added risk.

For children
under 6, risk for
developmental
delay, the measures
of flourishing, and
positive parent
interactions were
not associated
with parental
incarceration.

FOR CHILDREN YOUNGER THAN 6

The only well-being variable associated with an incarcerated parent, after
controls, was the number of additional ACEs. Risk for developmental delay, the measures of flourishing,
and positive parent interactions were not associated with parental incarceration. After controlling
for demographic variables, children who had experienced parental incarceration had, on average, 1.2
more ACEs (excluding parental incarceration) than children without that experience. Once again, prior
research suggests that the greater the number of adverse experiences, the greater the likelihood of
lasting harm to the child.22
FOR CHILDREN AND YOUTH 6 TO 17

ACEs: For children in this age group, parental incarceration was also significantly associated with
the number of additional ACEs. After accounting for the control variables, children ages 6 to 11 with
an incarcerated parent had, on average, 1.4 more ACEs than those who did not. For older youth (1217), the average was 1.7 more ACEs.

There were
significant negative
relationships
between schoolrelated well-being
and having had an
incarcerated parent.

School: There were some significant negative relationships between
school-related well-being and having had an incarcerated parent.
Children ages 6 to 11 with an incarcerated parent were, on average,
9 percentage points more likelye to have school problems than
those without (44 versus 35 percent likelihood). They also had lower
school engagement. For instance, they were 5 percentage points
less likely, on average, to have the highest school engagement score
(77 versus 82 percent likelihood). For youth ages 12-17, those with an
incarcerated parent were also more likely to have school problems
(43 versus 35 percent likelihood). For these older youth, there was
no significant relationship between school engagement and parental
incarceration.

Parental monitoring: There was a small association between parental incarceration and parental
monitoring. Among older youth, parentsf of youth with an incarcerated parent were 4 percentage
points more likely to not have met any of their friends (24 versus 20 percent likelihood). Research
has found that parental monitoring is associated with a lower risk of youth engaging in risky
behaviors.23 There was no similar relationship in the case of younger children.

e

	For all analyses of bivariate and ordinal outcomes, the percent difference in likelihood is the mean marginal effect, which is based on
the derivative of the probability curve.

f

	Strictly speaking, this refers to the respondent. In 92 percent of cases, this is a parent.

Parents Behind Bars

7

Emotional difficulties: Younger school-age children with an incarcerated parent were 9 points more
likely to have emotional difficulties (73 versus 64 percent likelihood), as reported by parents. Older
youth with an incarcerated parent were also more likely to have emotional difficulties, but that
correlation did not hold up in all analyses.g
Other measures of well-being: Parental incarceration had no measurable effect on youth
participation in sports or clubs, frequent religious attendance, meals with family, parental ability to
talk about things that matter, or parental aggravation, when controlling for confounding factors.

DISCUSSION
The incarceration of a parent affects millions
of children in the United States, and it is most
common among children who face other barriers
to opportunity, such as those who are black, live
in low-income families, or have parents with low
education. Thus, the harm associated with parental
incarceration can compound the already difficult
circumstances of vulnerable children.
Children of all ages who have experienced parental
incarceration, even after controlling for a number of
characteristics, have a greater number of adverse
experiences than those who have not. Nevertheless,
one limitation of this study is that we cannot infer
causality. For example, a parent’s violent behavior
could be either a cause or an effect of their
incarceration—or the relationship may be more
complicated.
The child’s school success was an area where there were small but statistically significant negative
associations with parental incarceration, after controls. For all children of school age, there were
associations with school-reported problems, and, for younger children, with weaker school
engagement. The social stigma associated with parental incarceration, which teachers and peers
may reinforce, may be one explanation for this finding. Having an imprisoned parent is an example
of a loss that is not socially approved or (often) supported, which may compound children’s grief
and pain, leading to emotional difficulties and problem behaviors.24

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

Apart from compounded exposure to adverse experiences, we found
few negative effects of parental incarceration on the measured outcome
variables. This may reflect the timing of parental incarceration, or it may
reflect that children at different developmental stages react differently
to the experience, independent of how recently it occurred. For example,
significant associations with school engagement were found for younger
school-age children only. Older youth may be less affected by parental
incarceration, or effects may be greater when incarceration is more
recent (or concurrent). Studies have shown that many children with an
incarcerated parent experience a series of ongoing experiences with the
corrections system (directly, or mediated through their parents) that can
exacerbate their distress.25

Measures of parent-child interaction, regardless of the child’s age, were
mostly unrelated to parental incarceration. However, our analysis was
limited to co-resident parents (or other adults). We may assume the child’s relationship with the
g

The relationship was significant only when the (non-significant) effect of having lived with a person who had a substance abuse
problem was excluded from the model, suggesting that multicollinearity limits the model’s explanatory capacity.

Parents Behind Bars

8

incarcerated parent is or was affected, but we cannot distinguish parent respondents who may
have been incarcerated from those who had not. Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that all
measured variables were based on parents’ own reports.
There may also be indirect effects of parental incarceration that are not measured in our models.
Because we controlled for parental divorce and other adverse experiences, we could not identify
indirect effects that parental incarceration may have had. For instance, if parental incarceration
increased the likelihood of divorce, and divorce had an effect on an outcome, that effect would not
be evident.

IMPLICATIONS
Discussions of U.S. corrections policy do not often consider children.
But the available data suggest there are more children who have
experienced a resident parent’s incarceration than there are currently
incarcerated adults, both because of past incarcerations, and
because incarcerated adults typically have multiple children.26
We need effective programs to mitigate the harm associated with
having an incarcerated parent. Although in-prison training programs
focused on parenting skills are common,27 few are focused on
meeting the needs of children directly during the time parents are
in prison.28
One thing that policymakers can do is make it easier for children
to maintain positive relationships with their parents during the period of incarceration. While
there is often semi-regular contact (in one study, 52 percent of
incarcerated parents had at least monthly mail contact, and 38
percent had at least monthly phone contact), in-person visits are
Encouraging
relatively rare.29 This is likely due to a number of factors, including
communication
the cost and time to travel to distant facilities, the burden and
discomfort of security procedures, and a lack of child-friendly
between parents
places to meet. Even phone calls can be prohibitively expensive.30
in prison and
Caregivers who are estranged from the incarcerated parent may
their children, and
not allow visits, and incarcerated parents are not granted parental
visitation rights.

improving the
settings for visits,
are good places
to start.

In-person visits can also be upsetting to children.31 From children’s
perspective, visiting a parent in prison is likely to subject them
to what has been termed “secondary prisonation,” whereby they
experience subtler versions of the physical confinement, elaborate
surveillance, and restrictive rules typical of such institutions.32
However, this may have more to do with features of the prison
setting than with the visit itself; studies that have evaluated child-friendly visiting areas and policies
(such as relaxed security procedures for children) find positive results for both children and their
parents.33

One researcher lists five major types of programs for incarcerated parents. These include education
in parental skills, programs that provide extended special visits for children, child-friendly facilities
for visits, parenting support groups, and custody services. There are also prison nurseries where
very young children can live full-time with their incarcerated mothers, but these programs apply
only to a small number of children with imprisoned parents.34
As policymakers grapple with alternative corrections strategies that divert adults (including many
who are parents) from incarceration, they can also improve well-being for those children whose

Parents Behind Bars

9

parents are already in prison, or who have been. Encouraging communication between parents in
prison and their children, and improving the settings for visits, are good places to start. Educators
can help by becoming better informed about the needs of this group, and developing strategies
to improve their chances of success in the school setting. In all settings, adults who interact with
children who have, or have had, an incarcerated parent, can benefit from increased understanding of
this experience.
In Appendix 4, we list several promising programs that offer services to this population.	

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
Child Trends is grateful for the financial support provided by the Annie E. Casey Foundation for
the production of this report. We also appreciate our colleagues Mindy Scott, Artemis Benedetti,
Kristin Anderson Moore, August Aldebot-Green, John Lingan, Carol Emig, and Frank Walter for their
helpful comments on the report, and Weilin Li for her aid with the analysis. The opinions expressed
in this report are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Annie E. Casey
Foundation.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on this publication. Has it helped
you or your organization? Email us at feedback@childtrends.org

drop us
a line

Copyright 2015 by Child Trends, Inc. Publication # 2015-42
Child Trends is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center that studies children at all stages of development. Our mission
is to improve outcomes for children by providing research, data, and analysis to the people and institutions
whose decisions and actions affect children. For additional information, including publications available to
download, visit our website at childtrends.org.

Parents Behind Bars

10

DATA SOURCE
We use data from the 2011-12 National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH), a survey sponsored by
the Maternal and Child Health Bureau in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The
NSCH is a telephone interview survey where a parent (or other knowledgeable adult) reports about
a child in their household. The data are representative of children younger than 18, and produce
valid estimates for the nation, as well as for all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
In 2011-12, the survey asked whether the sample child had ever lived with a parent or guardian who
had been incarcerated at any point since the child was born. We lack information on whether it was
the child’s mother or father who is/was incarcerated, whether they are a biological or step-parent,
or whether they were living with the child at the time of the incarceration. If a non-residential parent
experienced incarceration, that would not be picked up by this survey. Further, the timing of the
incarceration, or whether there were multiple incarceration spells, is unknown. Thus, when we refer
throughout to “parental incarceration,” readers should bear in mind these limitations.

METHODS
For each well-being outcome, we used multiple regression to test its relationship with parental
incarceration. Depending on the type of measure, we used logistic (for bivariate outcomes),
cumulative multi-logistic (for ordinal outcomes), or ordinary least-squares regression (for the
number of additional adverse experiences). We ran two regressions for each relevant age group for
each outcome.

•	 The first regression included a number of independent variables:
•	Whether a parent that the child had ever lived with had ever been incarcerated (as an explanatory
variable);

•	A number of demographic control variables, including the child’s gender, race/ethnicity, poverty
level, family structure, and age;

•	Other adverse childhood experiences, including parental divorce or separation, death of a parent,
witnessing domestic violence or violence in the community, and living with someone who had
mental health issues or a substance abuse problem. These measures were excluded from the
analysis of additional adverse experiences.

To test the robustness of the model, non-significant additional adverse experiences were removed
for a second regression analysis. In all cases but one, the significance of the association between
parental incarceration and the dependent variable was unaffected.
All regressions were run using SUDAAN, and accounted for the complex design of the NSCH.
Analyses used the multiply-imputed poverty data released with the survey, and accounted for the
resulting increase in variance.
Where we mention differences between children who have experienced parental incarceration and
those who have not, the differences are statistically significant, unless otherwise stated.

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11

OUTCOME VARIABLE DEFINITIONS
Number of additional adverse childhood experiences
Respondents in the NSCH were asked about eight ACEs (in addition to parental incarceration):
1.	

Frequent economic hardship

2.	 Parental separation or divorce
3.	 Parental death
4.	 Witnessing domestic violence
5.	 Witnessing or experiencing neighborhood violence
6.	 Living with someone who was mentally ill or suicidal
7.	 Living with someone who had a substance abuse problem
8.	 Experiencing racism
For each one of these, parents were asked whether the child had ever (since birth) experienced
it. All references to parents include residential parents only. The dependent measure represents a
count of the number of events that the child had ever experienced.

Developmental risk
Young children (ages four months through five years) were classified as being at no, low, moderate,
or high risk for developmental delay, based on a list of concerns named by the parent. More
information is available at the Data Resource Center for Child and Adolescent Health, at www.
childhealthdata.org/docs/nsch-docs/peds_scoring_4website-pdf.

Flourishing (ages birth to 5)
Children younger than six were considered flourishing if the respondent indicated that they usually
or always:
1.	

Were affectionate and tender with the respondent,

2.	 Bounced back quickly when things didn’t go their way,
3.	 Showed interest and curiosity in learning new things, and
4.	 Smiled and laughed a lot.

Positive parent-child interaction (ages birth to 5)
Positive parent-child interaction is a scale from zero to three (alpha=0.7). A child receives one point
each for meeting the following conditions:
1.	

A family member read to the child at least six days in the past week,

2.	 A family member told stories to the child at least six days in the past week, and
3.	 A family member took the child on an outing on at least four days in the past week. Examples
of outings include going to the park, library, zoo, shopping, church, restaurants, and family
gatherings.

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12

School engagement (ages 6 to 17)
A “school engagement” scale from zero to three (alpha=0.6), had a child receiving one point for
meeting each of the following conditions:
1.	

The child usually or always shows interest and curiosity in learning new things,

2.	 The child usually or always cares about doing well in school, and
3.	 The child usually or always does all required homework.

School problems (ages 6 to 17)
Children and youth were considered to have school problems if
1.	

They had ever repeated a grade, or

2.	 Their school had contacted an adult in the household in the past twelve months about problems
they were having with school.

Participation in sports or clubs (ages 6 to 17)
Children and youth were considered to have participated in out-of-school activities if they
participated in a sports team, or took sports lessons after school or on weekends, or participated in
any clubs or organizations after school or on weekends.

Parental aggravation (ages 6 to 17)
Parental aggravation (alpha=0.6) was measured on a scale of zero to three; children received
one point for each of the following items to which the respondent answered “usually” or “always”
regarding their past-month experience:
1.	

Felt that the child is much harder to care for than most children their age,

2.	 Felt that the child does things that really bother the respondent a lot, and
3.	 Felt angry with the child.

Emotional difficulties (ages 6 to 17)
Emotional difficulties were measured on a scale of zero to three (alpha=0.4). Children received one
point each for meeting each of the following conditions:
1.	

The child usually or always argues too much,

2.	 He or she sometimes, usually, or always bullies or is cruel or mean to others, and
3.	 He or she is usually or always unhappy, sad, or depressed.

Regular religious service attendance (ages 6 to 17)
Children were considered to have regular religious service attendance if parents reported they
attended at least once a week.

Regular family meals (ages 6 to 17)
Children were considered to have regular family meals when they had had a meal with the whole
household on at least six days in the past week.

Parents Behind Bars

13

Parental ability to talk about things that matter (ages 6 to 17)
Parents or other guardians were asked to rate how well they and the child could share ideas (very
well, somewhat well, not very well, not well at all; coded as a four-point scale).

Parental monitoring (ages 6 to 17)
Parents were asked about the number of the child’s friends they had met (all, most, some, or none).
The few cases (n=197) where the respondent indicated that the child has no friends were excluded
from the analysis.

Parents Behind Bars

14

REFERENCES
	 National Research Council, Committee on Causes and Consequences of High Rates of
Incarceration. (2014). The growth of incarceration in the United States: Exploring causes and
consequences. Travis, J., Western, B., & Redburn (Eds.) Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

1

	 Glaze, L. E. & Kaeble, D. (2014). Correctional populations in the United States, 2013 (NCJ 248479).
U.S. Department of Justice. http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/cpus13.pdf

2

	 American Psychological Association. (October 2014) Incarceration nation. Monitor on Psychology
45(9). Available at: http://www.apa.org/monitor/2014/10/incarceration.aspx

3

	 National Research Council, op. cit.

4

	 Ibid.

5

	 Glaze, L. E. & Maruschak, L. M. (2008). Parents in prison and their minor children. Bureau of Justice
Statistics Special Report. http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/pptmc.pdf

6

	 Ibid.

7

	 National Research Council, op. cit.

8

	 Lee, R. D., Fang, X., & Luo, F. (2013). The impact of parental incarceration on the physical and
mental health of young adults. Pediatrics, 131, e1188-e1195.

9

	National Research Council, op. cit.

10

	 Turney, K. & Haskins, A. R. (2014). Falling behind? Children’s early grade retention after paternal
incarceration. Sociology of Education, 87(4), 241-258.

11

	 Murray, J., Farrington, D. P., & Sekol, I. (2012). Children’s antisocial behavior, mental health, drug use,
and educational performance after parental incarceration: A systematic review and meta-analysis.
Psychological Bulletin, 138(2), 175-210.

12

	 Gjelsvik, A., Dumont, D. M., Nunn, A., & Rosen, D. L. (2014). Adverse childhood events: Incarceration
of household members and health-related quality of life in adulthood. Journal of Healthcare for the
Poor and Underserved, 25(3), 1169-1182.

13

	 National Research Council, op. cit.

14

	Ibid.

15

	National Research Council, op. cit..

16

	See, for example, Turney, K. & Wildeman, C. (2015). Detrimental for some? The heterogeneous
effects of maternal incarceration on child wellbeing. Criminology and Public Policy, 14(1), 125-146.

17

	Child Trends Databank (2015). Family structure. http://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=familystructure.

18

Anda, R. F., Felitti, V. J., Bremner, J. D., Walker, J. D., Whitfield, C., Perry, B. D., Dube, S. R., & Giles,
W. H. (2006). The enduring effects of abuse and related adverse experiences in childhood: A
confluence of evidence from neurobiology and epidemiology. Archives of Clinical Neuroscience,
256, 174-186,

19

	Ibid.

20

	Arditti, J. A. (2012). Child trauma within the context of parental incarceration: A family process
perspective. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 4, 181-219.

21

	 Anda, et al., op. cit.

22

	DiClemente, R. J., Wingood, G. M., Crosby, R., Sionean, C., Cobb, B. K., Harrington, K, Davies, S.,
Hook, E.W. III, & Oh, M. K. (2001). Parental monitoring: Association with adolescents’ risk behaviors.
Pediatrics, 107(6), 1363-1368.

23

Parents Behind Bars

15

24

Arditti, op. cit.

25

Ibid.

26

Glaze & Maruschak, op. cit.

	According to one organization, there were 700 parenting educators in prisons nationwide that
received a newsletter about parenting education. http://www.ceawisconsin.org/Prison%20
Parenting%20Programs.htm

27

	Miller, A. L., Perryman, J., Markovitz, L. et al. (2013). Strengthening incarcerated families: Evaluating
a pilot program for children of incarcerated parents and their caregivers. Family Relations, 62(4).

28

29	

Poehlmann, J., Dallaire, D., Loper, A. B., & Shear, L. D. (2010). Children’s contact with their
incarcerated parents: Research findings and recommendations. American Psychology, 65(6), 575598.

	Tyner, A. (2015). The impact of incarceration on families, communities, and offenders [Webinar].
Available at https://www.opressrc.org/content/impact-incarceration-families-communities-andoffenders-webinar-transcript.

30

	Ibid.

31

	Arditti, op. cit.

32

CSR, Incorporated. (2008) Third-year evaluation of Girl Scouts Beyond Bars: Final report. New
York, NY: Girl Scout Research Institute. https://www.girlscouts.org/research/pdf/gsbb_report.pdf

33

	Ferro, L. (2002). What about me? Children with incarcerated parents. Michigan Family Impact
Seminars Briefing Report no. 2002-1. http://extension.missouri.edu/4hlife/documents/tools/
whatabout.pdf

34

Parents Behind Bars

16

Appendix 1: Children With an Incarcerated Parent, by Select Measures
and by Age (Percentages)
Total
All children

Younger than 6

6 to 11 years

12 to 17 years

6.9

4.5

8.2

8.1

6.0

3.9

7.0

6.9

Race
Non-Hispanic white
Non-Hispanic black

11.5

7.8

12.3

13.6

Hispanic

6.4

4.0

8.3

7.3

Other

7.0

4.4

8.4

8.6

8.2

5.1

8.1

10.7

Highest parental education
Less than high school
High school graduate

7.5

4.9

9.2

8.1

More than high school

5.8

4.0

7.0

6.6

12.5

8.6

14.3

15.8

Low-income (100% to 199% FPL)

9.1

4.6

11.2

11.3

Not low-income (200% FPL or
more)

3.9

2.3

4.6

4.5

All parents native-born

7.4

4.6

9.3

8.0

Living with at least one foreignborn parent

2.9

2.2

3.0

3.6

Within a metropolitan area

6.3

4.2

7.3

7.5

Outside a metropolitan area

10.7

6.3

13.1

12.1

Poverty level
Poor (<100% FPL)

Immigration status

Urbanicity

Appendix 2: Unadjusted Outcome Measures Among Children Younger
than 6: Total, and by Parental Incarceration Status (Percentages)
Total

Ever had incarcerated parent Never had incarcerated parent

Risk for developmental
delay
High

10.8

14.8*

10.6

Moderate

15.2

22.3*

14.9

Low

13.9

21.3*

13.0

73.4

66.5*

74.0

0

16.3

22.1*

16.0

1

17.1

18.3

17.1

2

25.6

26.5

25.5

3

41.0

33.1*

41.4

Flourishing on all four
measures
Positive parent
interaction score

*Difference between those with an incarcerated parent and those without is statistically significant (p<.05).

Parents Behind Bars

17

Appendix 3: Unadjusted Outcome Measures Among Those Ages 6 to 17:
Total, and by Parental Incarceration Status (Percentages)
Ages 6-17
Total

Ages 6-11

Ever had
Never had
incarcerated incarcerated
parent
parent

Ages 12-17

Total

Ever had
incarcerated
parent

Never had
incarcerated
parent

Total

Ever had
Never had
incarcerated incarcerated
parent
parent

School
engagement
score
0

3.7

6.7*

3.4

1.8

2.4

1.7

5.6

11.0*

5.1

1

7.4

12.3*

6.9

5.2

10.7*

4.6

9.6

13.8*

9.2

2

16.1

21.0*

15.6

13.7

19.5*

13.2

18.4

22.5*

18.0

3

72.9

60.0*

74.1

79.4

67.5*

80.6

66.5

52.7*

67.7

Any school
problems

35.9

58.4*

34.0

35.4

57.5*

33.6

36.3

59.4*

34.3

Participation
in sports or
clubs

73.7

65.5*

74.6

70.7

62.3*

71.5

76.7

68.7*

77.5

0

72.5

55.1*

74.0

71.8

54.9*

73.3

73.1

55.3*

74.7

1

19.8

27.9*

19.1

20.5

26.7*

20.0

19.1

29.1*

18.2

2

6.8

15.0*

6.0

6.9

16.5*

6.0

6.7

13.4*

6.1

3

1.0

2.1*

0.9

0.8

1.9*

0.7

1.2

2.3*

1.0

0

87.7

81.7*

88.3

88.3

84.0*

88.7

87.1

79.5*

87.8

1

8.8

10.4

8.6

8.7

9.0

8.6

8.9

11.8*

8.6

Emotional
difficulties
score

Parental
aggravation
score

2

2.5

5.2*

2.3

2.3

5.0*

2.0

2.8

5.5*

2.5

3

1.0

2.7*

0.9

0.8

2.2*

0.7

1.2

3.2*

1.0

Regular
religious
service
attendance

52.8

48.0*

53.2

55.0

51.3

55.3

50.8

44.9*

51.2

Regular
family meals

47.1

49.6

46.9

53.8

57.9

53.5

40.5

41.4

40.4

Talking about
“things
that really
matter”

70.3

63.9*

71.0

76.0

67.3*

76.8

64.9

60.6*

65.3

Parents Behind Bars

18

Ages 6-17

Parent
knows

Ages 6-11

Ages 12-17

Total

Ever had
Never had
incarcerated incarcerated
parent
parent

Total

Ever had
incarcerated
parent

Never had
incarcerated
parent

Total

Ever had
Never had
incarcerated incarcerated
parent
parent

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All friends

27.6

25.9

27.7

33.7

30.4

34.0

21.8

21.4

21.7

Most
friends

48.8

45.6*

49.2

43.5

41.0

43.8

53.9

50.1

54.3

Some
friends

21.4

25.8*

21.0

20.7

25.6*

20.2

22.2

26.0*

21.8

No friends

2.2

2.8

2.1

2.1

3.0

2.1

2.2

2.6

2.1

* Difference between those with an incarcerated parent and those without is statistically significant (p<.05).

Parents Behind Bars

19

Appendix 4: Programs Serving Children with Incarcerated Parents
Organization/
Program Name

Description

Location

Web link

Hope House DC

Hope House DC offers programs to prisoners and their
families aimed at decreasing recidivism and keeping
incarcerated men connected to the community. The
organization has three primary purposes including to 1)
create programs that strengthen ties between fathers
who are incarcerated in prisons far from home and their
families; 2) advocate for and raise the level of awareness
of the general public about inmates and their families and
their concerns; and 3) create programs for the children
and families of prisoners.

Washington,
District of
Columbia

Website:
http://www.
hopehousedc.
org/

New Hope Oklahoma

New Hope provides resiliency and prevention programs
for children with a parent in prison. Services include 11
after school programs in seven schools, a week long
summer camp, holiday parties, retreats, and case
management to assess needs and coordinate community
services.

Oklahoma

Website:
http://www.
newhopeoklahoma.org/

Pathfinders of Oregon

Pathfinders of Oregon provides prevention and
intervention services to individuals, families, and children
at high risk for being involved in the justice system.
The organization provides cognitive-based programs,
education and supportive services for pro-social living
to adults in the Oregon prison system and to children
and families in the community. They also create and
disseminate evidence based curricula and programs.
Lastly, Pathfinders of Oregon aims to build community
and create systems change to focus resources on
addressing the full spectrum of social factors impacting
the health of individuals and communities.

Oregon

Website:
http://www.
pathfindersoforegon.com/

Promises for Families

Promises for Families provides summer camp, after school San Angelo,
enrichment programs and academic tutoring for children
Texas
whose lives have been impacted by parental incarceration.
Activities are led by professional instructors and qualified
counselors who have experience working with at-risk,
traumatized, or grieving children. They partner with
organizations with host facilities to provide programs at
no charge to the campers.

Website: http://
promisesforfamilies.org/
index.php/en/

Sesame StreetLittle Children,
Big Challenges:
Incarceration

Little Children, Big Challenges provides much-needed
resources for families with young children (ages 3 – 8) as
they encounter the difficult changes and transitions that
come with a parent's incarceration. Specific resources are
available for providers and caregivers.

Online
Toolkit

Website: http://
www.sesamestreet.org/
parents/topicsandactivities/
toolkits/incarceration

The Osborne
Association: Children
and Youth Services

The Osborne Association provides children and youth
services to help children with a currently or formerly
incarcerated parent to overcome stigma and isolations by
offering a strengths-based, non-judgmental, child-friendly
environment, along with support, various services, and
resources tailored to these children’s unique needs and
perspectives.

New York

Website: http://
www.osborneny.
org/index.cfm

Parents Behind Bars

Programs:
http://www.
hopehousedc.
org/programs/

Child and Youth
Services
http://www.
osborneny.org/
programs.cfm?
programID=15

20

 

 

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