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Report Finds Incarceration Damages Children Psychologically, Emotionally

Report Finds Incarceration Damages Children Psychologically, Emotionally

by Gary Hunter

Broken Bonds, a study by the Urban Institute Justice Policy Center shows that incarceration inflicts psychological and emotional damage on the children of incarcerated citizens. Unlike other forms of trauma the incarceration of a parent “creates unique stressors in a child’s life, many of which go unnoticed to the outside world.”

In a society that locks up over 900 citizens per 100,000 it is easy to see how adversely affected children can only foreshadow future problems. Roughly 1.9 million children have parents in prison. Without intervention many will follow in their parents’ footsteps.

To make matters worse the number of mothers being jailed is also rising. In most instances, when only the father is incarcerated, a child does not experience a drastic change in their living situation. Most children will continue to live with their mother and often will not change their living location. Many of these children already live in single-parent homes so incarceration of the father has less impact.

However, when the mother is incarcerated the affected child is forced to relocate, most often with other family members. The new caregiver may be more or less willing to accept the responsibility of the marooned child and will almost certainly undergo a significant impact on the amount of household expenditures. This is alarming given that between 1991 and 1999 the number of incarcerated mothers grew by nearly fifty percent. The study found that the stress of raising children of incarcerated parents often falls to the grandparents. In those instances these elderly caregivers may be physically and financially unprepared for this unexpected burden. Retirement funds dry up quickly. Households providing care for a child with an incarcerated parent are 80 percent more likely to experience financial burdens than normal households.

Financial difficulties occur for a variety of reasons. For example, an incarcerated father is usually unable to make child support payments. An incarcerated mother who was on welfare cannot have that income transferred to the new caregiver. Two-thirds of caregivers say that caring for the child of an incarcerated parent severely limits their standard of living.

Matters are made worse as children of incarcerated parents often lose intimate rapport with their parents. Many times this occurs because caregivers are reluctant to take the children into a prison setting, often in distant locations. Prisons themselves often create the deterrents that discourage visitations. Family members often feel intimidated, uncomfortable and humiliated about coming into a prison. Prison policies are often designed to incur long waiting periods prior to a visit while visitors are frisked and treated disrespectfully.

Phone calls from prison are often many times the rate of an outside call. As a result many caregivers who would otherwise encourage phone contact between parents and their children are forced to discourage that contact for financial reasons.

Children with incarcerated parents also develop emotional and psychological disorders. The study notes that the stress, sadness and fear that accompanies the loss of a parent to prison is often more intense than losing a parent to death. One reason for this is that a child whose parent dies is often surrounded by sympathetic others who offer comfort and assistance. Children whose parents are imprisoned not only have few sympathizers they are often stigmatized by others.

Children of incarcerated parents often experience sleeplessness, loss of concentration and depression. Many of those children often become involved in criminal activities themselves. A longitudinal study conducted on young boys, in England, found that those whose parents had been locked up showed a significant risk for displaying antisocial and delinquent behavior. Of those whose parents were incarcerated before the boys were ten years old almost half were themselves convicted as adults. Similar studies across Europe showed that children of convicted parents were more likely to be convicted of a crime, do poorly in school and become drug abusers.

Children of incarcerated parents were twice as likely to exhibit some type of mental health problem, attention disorder or depression. The study concluded that the younger the child the more likely the existence of problems.

Conversely, children who are given consistent visits with their parents, are involved with mentoring programs such as big brothers and big sisters and who are dealt with honestly about their parents’ incarceration often adjust favorably to their situations eventually.

Children of incarcerated parents are subject to “unique stressors” that are seldom acknowledged and less frequently addressed by educators, lawmakers or healthcare professionals. Children burdened with the loss of a parent to prison are often treated as burdens themselves. Fueled by guilt and shame, it is little wonder that these adolescents fail.

Thoughtless and unchecked incarceration serves as a breeding ground for the future failure of our youth. Incarceration destroys families and ensures increased juvenile delinquency. Source: Broken Bonds: Understanding and Addressing the Needs of Children with Incarcerated Parents. The report is available on PLN’s website.

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