Young Girls — At their young age, girls are confused about their feelings and unsure how to grieve the loss of a parent who is alive, yet emotionally and physically absent. Young girls may suffer from depression, anxiety, and other serious emotional or relational problems due to their missing parent. Their suffering may even include symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, comparable to children whose parents have died.
Young Boys — When a parent is incarcerated and removed from a young boy’s life, it can have lasting social, emotional, and developmental impacts on them resulting in aggressive behavior, withdrawal, criminal involvement, peer isolation, and depression.
Teen Girls — Adolescent girls may express behaviors such as withdrawing emotionally in school, truancy, pregnancy, drug abuse, and diminished academic performance. Disruptive behavior may surface when teen girls experience emotional and psychological problems from parental incarceration. They tend to seek social cliques that are more accepting of them, but unfortunately, often influencing them negatively.
Teen Boys — The stigma associated with parental imprisonment can cause feelings of shame, anger, and rejection in teen boys, which can impact their emotional reaction to subsequent stressful life events. This age group tends to be afraid that they will be labeled by their peers, teachers, and other family members because they have an incarcerated parent.
Grandparents are financially vulnerable when they become primary caregivers for their grandchildren due to incarceration. They may be forced to quit their jobs, reduce their work hours, and/or exhaust their savings in order to cope with their new caregiving responsibilities. Census data shows that 25% of children living in homes maintained by their grandparents live in poverty, and 33% of the children in homes maintained by their grandparents have no health insurance.
Fathers — A father’s relationship toward their incarcerated child is many times filled with anger and resentment not only for their crime, but also for the hurt and damage that child caused his wife and family. Many times it can take years for the father to come around and begin to rebuild the relationship with their imprisoned child. Fathers tend to struggle with the shame and guilt and begin the cycle of self blame for it being their fault and that in some way they let their child down.
Mothers — Many mothers’ lives are dominated by the result of their child’s imprisonment. They live with the consequences created by the incarceration of their child. Stigma, shame, guilt, isolation, financial, social, psychological, and environmental consequences are very real issues faced by mothers. The essential need for the family to develop and be part of their community is overrun by the stigma attached to having a child in prison.
What is happening to my family?
When a family member is incarcerated, how each family member feels, acts, and reacts to this new challenge can be unpredictable. When all or most of the individuals in a family change suddenly because of incarceration, the family dynamics can go places never imagined by any of the family members. These changes to family structure can bring about tremendous insecurities not only into the children’s lives, but also into the lives of the adults and the potential division of the family. This restructuring and the struggles resulting from incarceration are a normal part of families transitioning into the daily life of learning how to survive and cope with having an imprisoned loved one.
On any given day in America, it is estimated that more than 2.1 million children have a parent incarcerated in a state or federal prison. And more than 10 million children are living with a parent who has come under some form of criminal justice supervision at some point in the child’s life. Statistics reflect that parental incarceration can be one of the greatest threats to a child’s wellbeing. They endure obstacles of shame and low self-worth and are at higher risk for developing mental health issues, school failure and substance abuse.
The challenges that children and families with incarcerated parents face are significant. Not only do they experience the trauma of loss, but also a wide range of economic and social hardships that result from a parent being absent from their lives. It is a fact; the incarceration of a parent is associated with great change and uncertainty in many aspects of a child’s life. When a parent is imprisoned, his or her children will likely face additional risk factors, making them one of the most vulnerable and largest at-risk populations in the United States.
Imprisonment of a partner can be emotionally devastating and practically debilitating. Loss of income, social isolation, difficulties maintaining contact with their imprisoned family member, deteriorating relationships, and extra burdens of childcare can compound a sense of loss and hopelessness for prisoners’ partners. On the most basic level, for many women it is a heart-wrenching experience that can lead to isolation, depression and social dysfunction.
Women often keep their partner’s incarceration a secret to try to avoid the stigma. Women who keep their partner’s imprisonment under wraps may tend to withdraw from social networks, potentially leading to social isolation. Many families express, “having someone go to prison is similar to experiencing the death of a loved one.”
Shame and Anger
Parents of incarcerated offspring struggle with hiding the circumstances of the conviction of their child no matter how old the child is, due to the criticism they receive along with the unpleasant judgmental looks given by “friends and acquaintances.”
Most parents take the blame themselves for what their child did. They struggle with anger and frustration at missing years of their child's life due to the separation of incarceration. Because of the impact on mothers, many times the fathers are angry at the child for not only committing the crime but also for the emotional damage that it can cause their wives and other family members.
The prison system finds that 75% of women in prison are mothers. These “mothers” have left behind their young children, average age of eight years old and 22% under 5 years old, to be raised by family members, foster care, or other state care systems.
Unfortunately out of these children that have been left behind, 10% are in the foster care or other state care system for some period of time. Tragically it is 4 times more likely they remain there, leaving them to “age out” of the system. This impacts their self-worth, which in turn alters their ability to have balanced relationships and to become healthy functioning individuals in society.
The most recent statistics from the Bureau of Justice Systems indicates that in 2012, about 1 in every 35 adults in the United States was on probation, parole or incarcerated in prison or jail. Statistics show that 70% of incarcerated parents’ children will also be incarcerated, adding to the magnitude of these numbers. In addition, the current percentage at this time shows that 70% of incarcerated individuals will re-offend within three years of their release, compounding the likelihood that children with incarcerated parents will follow in their footsteps.
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