Parental Incarceration - Bridging Troubled Waters Candace Cole

Dr. Candace Cole-McCrea
b r i d g i n g t r o u b l e d w a t e r s . o rg
“Parental incarceration can be worse for a
child than divorce or death” (Turney, 2014)
Parental incarceration creates multiply tiered challenges
for children and their families, to include:
Having a parent in prison or jail is linked to a greater incidence
of attention deficit disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity
disorder, behavioral and conduct problems, learning
disabilities and developmental delays, according to a report by
Kristin Turney, assistant professor of Sociology at UC Irvine,
whose research appeared in the September issue of the
“Journal of Health and Social Behavior”.
She states: “Compared to divorce or death of a parent,
parental incarceration is more strongly associated with both
ADD/ADHD and behavioral problems in children.”
Nearly 3.6 million parents are under some form
of correctional supervision. These parents have
an estimated 2.3 million children. Alarmingly,
the percentage of inmates who are parents has
significantly increased by one third in the years
of 2005-2010. Fathers are more than 90% of the
parents incarcerated, however, mothers are
increasingly incarcerated (an 87% increase for
mothers, and 61% for fathers).
58% of the children with incarcerated parents
were under 10 years of age, with 8 years
being the mean, according to Park and ClarkeStewart, 2001. They report findings of
multiple long term effects of parental
incarceration on children, to include:
1.) Incarceration and Infants: Bonding and
attachment issues that are likely to lead to emotional
and behavioral problems and attachment disorders in
2.) Incarceration and young children: Even if a bond has been
developed, the disruption associated with parental
incarceration is significantly likely to affect future attachment
and bonding. Insecure attachments have been linked to
poorer peer relationships and diminished cognitive abilities
later in life. Children exhibit internalizing problems, such as
anxiety, withdrawal, hypervigilance, depression, shame and
guilt as well as exhibiting somatic problems such as eating and
sleep disorders. Most clearly seen and the externalizing
behaviors of anger, aggression and hostility towards
caregivers, peers and siblings. Children of all ages are prone
to nightmares, flashbacks and other PTSD symptoms,
especially if they witnessed the arrest.
3.) Incarceration and School Age Children: 70% of school age children with
incarcerated parents showed reduced academic performance, new classroom
behavior problems and a refusal to go to school, which may be influenced by teasing
and humiliation by peer groups. It was also reported that adolescents had
significantly higher suspension and dropout rates than their peers.
4.) Gender Effects: According to studies, boys are more likely to
exhibit externalizing behavior problems, while girls are more
likely to manifest internalizing problems, such as cutting and
Incarceration is often preceded by a stressful
home and community environment, influenced
by poverty, school issues, abuse, neglect, family
conflict and/or parental absence. These factors
can set the child on a track for learning, life and
behavior problems prior to the added stressor
and stigma of parental incarceration. Relocation and a change of caregivers is also
Problems and issues due to incarceration do not
end when incarceration ends. In addition to the
parent’s issues around re-integrating into public life,
to include housing, job, parole requirements,
financial issues, the family faces the formidable task
of re-establishing functional and affective
relationships. The child may have developed
affectionate relationships with their temporary
caregivers. Being expected to love and enjoy the
ex-inmate in a close relationship may add to anger
and behavioral problems for the child.
Incarcerated parents may believe their child(ren)
love them very much and all is well and that the
relationships will resume beautifully as soon as
they are released. They may also feel anger,
frustration and grief when bonds with their
children have weakened.
Developmental theory:
Bowlby’s attachment theory and research
emphasize that the lack of opportunity for
consistent contact will prevent attachment. If
attachment has already been achieved, separation
can result in sadness and anger which will affect
Life Span theory:
Development is a lifelong process. How parents and children
adjust to incarceration will depend on the maturity and age of
the parent and the developmental level of the child. Unexpected
and unusual events can disrupt the child’s development and
change the trajectory of his/her growth and development.
Risk and resiliency theories:
Adaptation is dependent upon (1) the form and frequency of traumatic events
and (2)protective factors that buffer the child from the event. Some children
suffer permanent developmental disruptions and delays; some show less
obvious effects initially, then to develop more severe challenges later. Some
may adapt and cope well in the face of this trauma. The strongest predictor of
whether a child will successfully adapt has been shown through decades of
research to be whether the child has one person, beyond the immediate
family, who is not paid to “care”, but who spends significant time with the
child and consistently interacts with unconditional positive regard.
Cumulative risk model:
Risks are seen as cumulative. Incarceration in
itself is only one event. Children’s stresses are
affected by pre and post incarceration events
as well. There may be increased poverty,
changes in residence and schools, alternative
caregivers and stigmatization.
New research by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public
School of Public Health:
“…parents and children can be taught to recognize and the
reduce the biologic, emotional and psychological impact of
traumatic stress, bounce back when faced with a challenge, and
to develop a habit of hope instead of despair. Some of the most
promising methods involve simple breathing techniques as well
as so-called ‘trauma-informed’ care and community approaches
growing in popularity all across the country.”
Connecting the systems: Fragmented services leave wide
gaps, unmet needs and conflicting bureaucratic agendas.
Criminal Justice System: Family services within the
correctional facility need to work in tandem with social
services to look at the needs of the whole family.
Re-entry: Re-entry services need to be wrap-around
Schools: Schools need to adapt their systems to
a multi-tiered educational service model, to
include all children of incarcerated parents
receiving services on Tier 2, (such as PBIS)
whether or not they have an IEP, 504, or have
behavioral challenges that have affected school
Diversity: The vast majority of incarcerated
persons are not Anglo-Americans. Education
through all systems about cultural meanings and
experiences is vital for children to feel
compatibility and to bond with helpers.
Alternatives to Incarceration: Of course, all
alternatives to incarceration need to be primary
goals. For example, note that Portugal has closed
all jails and prisons to drug users, dropped all
criminal offenses for drug use and made available
free full service drug rehab wrap-around treatment
centers. They report that their drug use has
dropped 43%. Whether this is accurate or not is
irrelevant…the true issue is whether persons who
desire to quit can find the resources to enable them
to quit using and the supports to maintain their
families while they work on recovery.
I have counseled and taught within the criminal justice
system for many years now. Often, way too often, I have
multiple generations of the same families incarcerated at
the same time, or consecutively. We can blame the
families…they may not live by middle class values and
standards of behavior, however the problem and solution
is not that easily swept away. We all bear some
responsibility. It has long been my opinion as an educator,
parent and counselor that schools continue practices that
increase the likelihood of children being incarcerated,
diagnosed with behavioral health issues, and/or dropped
out of society as adults.
Recently, an article published in the Southern Poverty
Law Center’s Spring 2013 journal summarized what I
have seen and learned through the years. The author,
Marilyn Elias, states that, “In fact, hundreds of school
districts across the country employ discipline policies
that push students out of the classroom and into the
criminal justice system at alarming rates—a
phenomenon known as the School-to-Prison Pipeline.”
She reports that also in 2013, Sen. Richard Durbin,
D-Ill., held the first federal hearing on the issue as
an “important step towards ending policies
that…disproportionately push minority students
and students with disabilities out of schools and
into jails.”
Durbin told the subcommittee of the Senate
Judiciary Committee, that “For many young people,
our schools are increasingly a gateway to the
criminal justice system. This phenomenon is a
consequence of a culture of zero tolerance that …is
depriving many children of their fundamental right
to an education.”
A good analogy would be a negative model of the “underground
railroad”, but in this case, it is above ground, and widely supported. It
includes policies that include restraints and isolation, when the
student is not violently dangerous, automatic suspensions and out-ofclass time for minor, but nuisance infractions of nonconformity. The
school-to-prison pipeline starts in the classroom but is supported by
local, district and state policies. “A teacher’s decision to refer students
for punishments can mean they are pushed out of the classroom…”
Elias states, and much more likely that they are pushed into the
criminal justice system.
Children from impoverished homes, children in foster care, minorities
and children with disabilities are disproportionately represented in the
For the 2009-2010 academic year:
1 in 6 black students were suspended
1 in 13 American Indian students were suspended
1 in 14 Latino students were suspended
1 in 20 white students were suspended
The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that “while 8.6
percent of public school children have been identified as having
disabilities that affect their ability to learn, these students
make up 32 percent of the youth in juvenile detention centers.”
When we combine race with disability, 1 in 4 black students are
suspended, and 1 in 11 white students are suspended,
according to Daniel J. Losen, director of the Center for Civil
Rights Remedies of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. As reported
within this article, Losen reports that “children with emotional
disabilities are disproportionately suspended and expelled.”
He also states that suspension is being much more
frequently used as a disciplinary tool, as compared with
the 1970s. He concludes his decades of research by
showing that “removing children from school does not
improve their behavior, (but), instead, it greatly
increases the likelihood that they will drop out and wind
up behind bars.” According to his research, in the
majority of cases, students were suspended for “being
disruptive”, i.e., for having behavioral challenges in a
large, noisy, stressful arena, without successful coping
skills with which to manage the experiences they face.
It is important to recognize that not just children
of incarcerated parents or children with
disabilities experience stresses they cannot
manage. Families experiencing military
deployment identified 1/3 of military children at
“high risk” for psychosocial morbidity.
Children in foster care, children of incarcerated
parents and children whose parents are in the
military often experience attachment disorders.
“Attachment disorders can result from poor parenting;
abuse; neglect and insecure, interrupted, or poor foster
placements. Maltreatment itself is associated with insecure
attachment organization, poor emotional and behavioral
self-regulation, and problems in development of the
autonomous self and self-esteem. Toxic and traumatic events
directly affect neural and brain development, as neuronal
connections do not form well when stress hormone levels are
high. These traumas also result in problems such as
posttraumatic stress disorder.”
(Henry, M., 2005)
1.) Increase the use of positive behavior interventions and
supports. Train teachers on the use of positive behavior
support systems for at-risk students, including students who
are experiencing extraordinary life stressors. Do not assume
that children and adolescents should have and do have the
needed coping skills to deal with fear, trauma and loss. Shift
the paradigm from punishment to developmental practices. In
New Hampshire, the DOE Council on Special Education is
working on a legislative proposal to require all schools to train
and utilize a multi-tiered support system, such as Positive
Behavior Intervention Supports (PBIS).
2.) Require local districts and the state to compile annual
reports on the total number of disciplinary actions that push
students out of the classroom, identifiable by gender, age, race,
and ability/disability.
3.) Create agreements with police departments and court
systems to limit arrests at school and the use of restraints, such
as mace and handcuffs to potentially severely violent offenses.
4.) Keep a public log and provide simple explanations of
infractions and prescribed responses for the student code of
conduct to insure fairness.
5.) Create appropriate limits on the use of law enforcement in
public schools.
6.) Enlist and train community leaders as mentors and
volunteer coordinators. Enlist upper grade students with
disabilities to support lower grade students with similar
7.) Have local schools hold annual caregiver trainings to help
them advocate and effectively support their children and their
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