When parents are arrested, children can face a myriad of challenges. Studies in the US have shown that when a father goes to prison, there is approximately 90% chance the mother will remain the principal caregiver. However, when a mother is sent to prison the chances of the father remaining as the main caregiver drop to approximately 25%. (Ref. 1,2)
Where a child ends up living following the arrest of their parent(s) directly impacts how the rest of their lives unfold. The most common scenarios include the following:
(1) Living with their parent(s) in prison
Many women are mothers when they enter prison or are even in their pregnancy. In some countries mothers are separated from their newborns soon after birth but there are also many countries in which children stay with the parent, usually the mother, in prison up to a certain age (often 3 years old). If the rights of the child and his or her well-being are safeguarded by prison authorities, then this can be the most desirable situation for the early developmental years of the child and reduce the risk of attachment problems.
Unfortunately, in too many countries, children are handled like prisoners. Furthermore, in some countries the children literally live in cages. Children are often also subjected to a high degree of neglect: they do not receive food allowances which means that they rely on their parent(s) sharing their food allowances with them, they receive little or no medical care, and they endure insufficient sanitation. The children are both witnesses to, and subjects of, violence.
In many countries, children born in prison are not registered at the birth registry of their country because this can only be done in person at an office of the community in which the parents are registered. The mother cannot do this while imprisoned. Also, many children who are imprisoned with their parent(s) are not registered because the parent(s) are too poor or have too little knowledge to do so.
(2) Living outside of prison with extended families, in foster care or in government centers
Children who cannot live with their parent(s) in prison frequently end up staying with the non-incarcerated parent, extended families, a foster care family or with care arranged for by the government.
If parents are sent to prison in a so-called “developed country” and the child consequently loses both caregivers, the child is typically cared for by another relative, often grandparents, or enters foster care. In upper- and middle-income countries, there is often a basic system of care for children of convicts. However, even in Western European countries, the needs and challenges faced by children of convicts are not adequately addressed.
In developing countries, the situation is often different. Families are usually larger and more children lose their caregiver(s) when parents are sent to prison. The likelihood of a relative taking care of the child is slimmer due to poverty and sometimes shame. Furthermore, often there are also no adequate systems in place to care for these children.
In all cases, enabling a child to stay with a remaining parent, or alternatively with extended family within the community is the ideal and least disruptive situation but in practice this is not always in the child’s best interest. Arrests often do not happen in a vacuum, and in too many cases there is a history of poverty and physical or mental abuse prior to the arrest of a parent. In other cases, the arrest itself results in a new setting in which children can be subject to violence (retaliation), abuse, neglect and exploitation. From experience, we know that the following underlying factors can also play a role:
a. In some societies, there is a general perception that these children require harsh education in order to avoid them becoming criminals themselves. Physical punishment is common in many countries and it is often more extreme for these children than for children whose parents are not incarcerated.
b. These children are viewed as an extra person to feed by the new guardian. In lower-income countries, they often cannot go to school and are instead required to earn their food through employment, forced labor or (sexual) exploitation.
c. These children have to cope with social stigma: children of criminals are often considered criminals themselves. Thus, they are often bullied, humiliated and stripped of their dignity.
d. These children receive less protection or are entirely unprotected, therefore very vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and/or human trafficking.
(3) Living on the streets
In many lower-income countries, foster care is often a not an option. Consequently, the imprisonment of a parent often leads to the start of a life on the streets for the child. Life on the streets for children means that there is no help available to assist them in the healing process after their traumatic experiences of parental imprisonment, they are left to fend for themselves, without provisions of basic needs, such as food, shelter, clothing, schooling, health care and so on. Such children are also highly likely to lose connections with their imprisoned parent(s).
(4) Living in forced labor or exploitation
Children whose parents are in prison are unprotected in many countries. These children are often among the children trafficked or exploited and forced to work in very hazardous conditions. Parents frequently lose knowledge of their child’s whereabouts.
The psychological impact
Without adequate care and assistance, the psychological and emotional problems children of convicts face are often overwhelming and can leave life-long scars. The arrest of a parent brings fear, confusion and panic. Before and during the trial, children feel anxiety and frustration. Hopelessness and helplessness mark the sentencing. Upon the imprisonment of their parent(s), the child experiences abandonment, social stigma and resentment. After the release, children have ambivalent feelings. Domestic violence or sexual abuse can aggravate psychological traumas significantly. The following are possible developmental and behavioral implications resulting from the imprisonment of a parent:
• Infants of prisoners are deprived of parental bonding and suffer emotionally and psychologically as a result.
• For children between 2 and 6 years old, the ability to develop autonomy and initiative is likely to be damaged by the trauma of the parents’ criminal activity and/or arrest, and by the parent-child separation. The long-term impacts of parental imprisonment could be worse between these ages as they are old enough to understand and remember the traumatic events but too young to have the ability to process the ordeal without help.
• In middle childhood (7-10 years old), parental imprisonment is likely to have a major impact on social adjustment. Many children within this age group develop aggressive behavior and have difficulty getting along with others, particularly in school.
• Children of prisoners in early adolescence (11-14 years) have typically had multiple experiences with parental crime, arrest and imprisonment. Many children in this age group display maladaptive behavior patterns and reject limitations on their behavior.
• During late adolescence, children of prisoners often show increased delinquency and hold negative perceptions of the criminal-justice system.
In summary, parental imprisonment and consequentially enduring trauma, separation and inadequate care interfere with a child´s development, resulting in negative long-term outcomes, including intergenerational imprisonment. If a parent goes to prison the child suffers deeply, which interferes with his/her chance to live a successful adult life.
A downward spiral
There are currently millions of children worldwide who have at least one parent in prison. These children themselves are not criminals by nature or heritage. We know them. We have been working with them and for them since 1998. Without help, these children have a statistically higher likelihood of taking the wrong path as they enter adult life. Moreover, prison populations are growing on all five continents (Ref 3). This eventually creates a negative downward spiral of more children with a parent in prison.
From experience we know that problems do not end when a parent is released. The problems faced by children with a parent in prison will only grow without appropriate recognition of these challenges and adequate solutions for these challenges. We believe every child should have the ability to develop his/her full potential and we are committed to ending this negative downward spiral.
1. The National Resource Center of children and families of the incarcerated (FCN). Rutger University Camden. 2014 Factsheet citing Philips Ph.D., Susan D., Gleeson, Ph.D., James P., Children, Families and the Criminal Justice System, A Research Brief, Center for Social Policy and Research, Univ. Of Ill., Chicago (2007). http://nrccfi.camden.rutgers.edu/files/nrccfi-fact-sheet-2014.pdf (Retrieved on June 11, 2014).
2. Report card and analysis of federal policies from the National Women’s Law Center, US, October 2010 http://www.nwlc.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/mothersbehindbars2010.pdf citing Barbara Bloom, Barbara Owen & Stephanie Covington, Gender Responsive Strategies: Research, Practice, and Guiding Principles for Women Offenders 7 (Nat’l Inst. of Corr. 2003). Retrieved on June 11, 2014.
3. International Center for Prison Studies. 10th Edition of World Prison Population List (October 2013). http://www.prisonstudies.org/sites/prisonstudies.org/files/resources/downloads/wppl_10.pdf (Retrieved on June 11, 2014).