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Parental Incarceration’s Impact on a Child


Parental incarceration is a matter of significant concern in modern society since it has many negative consequences for imprisoned parents, all members of their families, and their children, specifically. The most dangerous impact of parental incarceration is associated with the fact that the child (or children) of an imprisoned parent have to live without parental love and care. Although cases of parental incarceration often involve only one parent, children may still be left alone if the other parent has left the family or died. Therefore, it is vital to address the issue because protecting children is one of the most critical tasks of humanity, and anything that can harm them should be one of the top priorities for solving. Thus, the purpose of this paper is to investigate the impact of parental incarceration from various viewpoints, including the general description of the issues, methods of dealing with it, and prevention ways. Parental incarceration appears as a significant issue with a broad scope of distribution, and though it is addressed on multiple levels, there are still some related imperfections that complicate children’s lives.

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Description of the Issue and Population

The issue of parental incarceration is massive and takes place globally, meaning that each country, including the United States, has multiple cases of imprisoned parents and children left alone or under other people’s care. According to Wakefield and Wildeman (2018), the number of imprisoned people grows exponentially. For instance, 500,000 people were prisoners in 1980, but that number had grown to more than 2,300,000 by 2007 (Wakefield & Wildeman, 2018). The researchers report that the Bureau of Justice Statistics provides data on more than 1,900,000 children (meaning they are younger than 18) who had at least one of their parents currently imprisoned in 2010 (as cited in Wakefield & Wildeman, 2018). The results of a more recent survey show that approximately five million children faced the issue of at least one parent being imprisoned during their childhood. All the numbers provided in this paragraph demonstrate that the issue of parental incarceration affects many children around the United States, and it is essential to seek efficient solutions to help families.

Risk Factors of Parental Incarceration

There are various risk factors, including individual, familial, and community risks associated with parental incarceration and the corresponding consequences. The individual risk factors may be related to financial issues and economic hardship, driving people to go against the law and get imprisoned, making their children lose a parent or parents (Wakefield & Wildeman, 2018). Familial risk factors may include familial instability and the corresponding interior problems that lead to various issues among the family members and can even make them commit a crime (Wakefield & Wildeman, 2018). Finally, the risk factors related to community, or social risk factors, include social differences in races, ethnicities, and classes (Turney & Goodsell, 2018). In addition, many families live in rural areas or disadvantaged neighborhoods, involve unmarried parents, and have a previous history of imprisonment, substance abuse, or violence (Turney & Goodsell, 2018). Everything mentioned above can become a risk factor and increase the chances of parental incarceration, meaning that addressing the issue at large will require dealing with the problems that can cause it.

Policy Implications

Although various policies and regulations are present for children whose parents have been incarcerated, there are some significant gaps in this field. Primarily, the related policies are parent-focused rather than child-centered, meaning that the regulations in the field have more concern for the potential prisoners than their children (Wakefield & Wildeman, 2018). According to the survey conducted by Young and Jefferson (2019), at least half of children who experienced parental incarceration “grew up under the weight of parental substance abuse” (p. 28). Thus, the modern policy implications reduce the number of families and communities touched by parental incarceration by improving the treatment of drug and alcohol issues and using a community-based approach to restorative justice (Young & Jefferson, 2019). However, the researchers also report that laws and regulations related to parental imprisonment also address the protection of children and take the corresponding cases when a child faces the issue under discussion (Young & Jefferson, 2019). Whatever the circumstances are, the primary task in parental incarceration is to ensure the children’s well-being and support it at any cost.

Supporting the Problem

Parental incarceration is a complex problem, meaning that it should be addressed on multiple levels for efficient outcomes, including members of the family, authorities, and the community. The main reason for the community to support the problem and fund the related programs is the costs related to parental incarceration. For instance, imprisonment of parents is associated with several negative consequences, such as household instability, the increased risk of childhood homelessness, and other similar issues (Wakefield & Wildeman, 2018). When a family with a child loses one or both parents to prison, this family becomes highly dependent on public assistance and other potential help sources (Wakefield & Wildeman, 2018). Parental incarceration is a challenging issue, and even if only one parent is imprisoned, life can become difficult for the family because of various problems, such as financial insufficiency. Therefore, such a family will likely ask other people for help, including local officials, community representatives, and close people. Addressing the problem of parental incarceration will decrease the required rates of public assistance, allowing to direct the resources towards other vital matters.

Collaborative Systems and Protective Factors Related to Parental Incarceration

As mentioned in the previous section of this paper, there are several systems associated with parental incarceration. First of all, these include local and federal authorities that can provide various types of assistance to the families of incarcerated parents, such as financial help (Turney & Goodsell, 2018). In addition, many community services work with children and provide support and protection to children in need, including those whose parents have been imprisoned (Turney & Goodsell, 2018). However, there is a current issue regarding police forces because there is a “lack of police policy around responding to children whose parents were arrested” (Trotter et al., 2017, p. 3). Formal protocols that should regulate the relationships between police forces and child protection services are absent, creating problems when someone’s parents get arrested (Trotter et al., 2017). It is advisable to enhance this field to ensure the children’s safety after arrest and the related procedures.

Program Models for the Improvements of the Issue

There are many various programs for incarcerated people to help them, their families, and their children. The necessity for such programs is primarily explained by the need to reduce inequalities among children with free and incarcerated parents, so such programs are widely developed and implemented (Turney & Goodsell, 2018). One such program is called “Helping Your Child Succeed,” designed for both imprisoned mothers and fathers and based on Family Nurturing Program (Turney & Goodsell, 2018). The program teaches various democratic techniques related to parenting, “advocating that all members of the family have a voice in family decisions” (Turney & Goodsell, 2018, p. 155). The program takes 10-20 hours of coursework and aims to improve the interaction between children and their incarcerated parents, working primarily with parenting knowledge and explaining children’s perception mechanisms (Turney & Goodsell, 2018). The program has proven to be helpful for both mothers and fathers in terms of their familial connections with their children from prison.

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Current Resources Available

The issue of parental incarceration touches many spheres of human life, requiring various resources to address the problem in different fields. According to Cochran et al. (2018), the life domains that may be affected by parental incarceration include “health, behavior, education, material well-being, political participation, homelessness, employment, and other later life-course outcomes” (p. 478). Therefore, each of the mentioned domains must have the corresponding resources to address the issue if it occurs. For instance, local child protection services can provide children of incarcerated parents with psychological help and educational assistance (Cochran et al., 2018). As mentioned earlier, local authorities can provide the families of imprisoned parents with financial support for feeding the children, paying taxes, and other material needs (Turney & Goodsell, 2018). Furthermore, parental incarceration represents significant scientific interest, and there are many various studies related to the topic, giving comments and recommendations to address the issue adequately in the future.

The Ways of Preventing the Problem

In the case of parental incarceration, it is tough to prevent the issue from affecting children altogether. As mentioned earlier, there are many different life domains that parental imprisonment touches, and it can be challenging for children to deal with the fact that their parent is a criminal sitting in jail. However, there are ways to improve the children’s lives and understand that their lives are not ruined if their parent is incarcerated. The researchers identify three main areas of intervention that should be addressed to reduce childhood inequalities (Turney & Goodsell, 2018). These include “strengthening parental relationships, increasing economic well-being, and treating substance abuse” (Turney & Goodsell, 2018, p. 157). Addressing these areas can help avoid stigmatization in the family and minimize the psychological impact on children and the overall damage to their childhood. However, complete prevention of parental incarceration from affecting children is practically impossible, as per the current level of scientific knowledge in the field.

Conclusion: Comments and Recommendations

Overall, parental incarceration is a highly significant issue that touches many people and their families and is associated with many problems that often cannot be addressed appropriately to ensure children’s safety. The incidence of parental incarceration is exceptionally high since most current prisoners have at least one child. Furthermore, the case of parental incarceration implies that there is a decisive necessity for support for both sides: the imprisoned person and their family, especially the children. Many organizations, including authorities and local community services, are always ready to provide the necessary help for families left without a parent (or both parents) because of imprisonment. Nonetheless, it is almost impossible to entirely avoid the damage of the problem because it touches all the domains of human life, especially the lives of children. It is advisable to continue research in this area to identify potential ways to deal with the issue and reduce the rates of parental incarceration to ensure children’s safety and well-being.


Cochran, J. C., Siennick, S. E., & Mears, D. P. (2018). Social exclusion and parental incarceration impacts on adolescents’ networks and school engagement. Journal of Marriage and Family, 80(2), 478-498.

Trotter, C., Flynn, C., & Baidawi, S. (2017). The impact of parental incarceration on children’s care: Identifying good practice principles from the perspective of imprisoned primary carer parents. Child & Family Social Work, 22(2), 952-962.

Turney, K., & Goodsell, R. (2018). Parental incarceration and children’s wellbeing. The Future of Children, 28(1), 147-164.

Wakefield, S., & Wildeman, C. (2018). How parental incarceration harms children and what to do about it. National Council on Family Relations, 3(1), 1-6.

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Young, D. S., & Jefferson, S. C. (2019). Young adult reflections on the impact of parental incarceration and reentry. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 58(5), 421-443.

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