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Kinship Care More Beneficial Than State Foster Care for Children of Incarcerated Parents

Published in May 2009, Kinship care when parents are incarcerated: What we know, what we can do, is an in-depth examination of current statistical and practical information regarding the plight of children with one or more incarcerated parents, the caregivers charged with their welfare and the government agencies and officials attempting to oversee the relationships between the two. The research was prepared for the Annie E. Casey Foundation by Creasie Finnie Hairston, Ph.D., who is Dean and Professor at Jane Addams College of Social Work, University of Illinois at Chicago.

The purpose of the report is to highlight the many and varied difficulties faced by a growing number of American children and their caregivers. The report points out there are over 1.7 million children in the U.S. who have a parent incarcerated. Although most of the children are in the care of relatives, many are in foster care in the custody of the child welfare system. It appears the most common caregiver for children of incarcerated parents are grandparents. These kinship care providers, be they grandparents, aunts, siblings, cousins, or other relatives or family friends, are becoming increasingly aware of the myriad effects the new social situations can have on the children in their care.

Of the nearly 2 million children with a parent in prison, a whopping 62% are between the ages of five and 14. Not surprisingly, some of these children experience significant social and emotional problems due to the parent’s absence causing their environmental upheaval. For school age children, the problems may be more pronounced due to the stigma of having a parent in prison. However, several factors have been identified that help ease the emotional turmoil many children experience. For instance, the quality of the child’s home environment, the influence of the caregiver, and the ability to communicate with the incarcerated parent have each been shown to have a positive impact on a child’s ability to successfully adjust to his new living arrangements.

The financial burden placed on caregivers in these situations often leads to additional stress in an already difficult matter. Since many of the families in these circumstances are poor to begin with, the added expense can easily lead to problems within the new, extended family. Additionally, 70% of the children live with a caregiver who is over 50 years old, many of whom have physical or mental health issues of their own.

Despite these possible shortcomings, child welfare officials encourage placing children in kinship care as opposed to unrelated foster care. Research suggests that the benefits gained by keeping the children in the care of the family when possible outweigh the potential “environmental adversities” they may encounter.

Dr. Hairston wants her report to serve as a “stepping-off point for further exploration of a complex topic.” She believes state and federal agencies should become more involved in developing and introducing new initiatives geared toward providing adequate protections and care for children with incarcerated parents. Hopefully, such initiatives will lead to new policies and programs that will not only ease the burden on the children and their caregivers, but help the parents rebuild their families and maintain their freedom upon release.

Source: Kinship care when parents are incarcerated, C.F. Hairston, Ph.D., pub. May 2009, Annie E. Casey Foundation.

 

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