I have been studying children and families affected by parental incarceration since my first National Institutes of Health grant was funded in 2001. I first became aware of the issue in the late 1990s when I was working as a clinical psychologist at the State University of New York Health Science Center at Syracuse in the Department of Family Medicine. I started receiving referrals to evaluate young children whose mothers were incarcerated because some children were exhibiting intense social emotional reactions following the mother’s departure, including social withdrawal, developmental regressions, significant behavior problems, and language delays. As a scientist-practitioner, I searched the child and family literature to see what we knew about children affected by parental incarceration. What I found shocked me: there had been an enormous increase in children with incarcerated parents since the 1980s, but we knew VIRTUALLY NOTHING about their well-being. Not even one study had collected data directly from children during a parent’s incarceration. I decided then that when I went back into academia, I would study these kids and try to help. And that’s what I did when I started my faculty position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1999.
It has been an uphill climb, but society is finally starting to recognize the negative and widespread impact that decades of mass incarceration policies have had on generations of children. The scientific literature focusing on children with incarcerated parents has burgeoned in the past decade. President Obama has appointed an interagency subgroup focusing on children with incarcerated parents, including representatives from 22 federal agencies, and he has commuted the sentences of more individuals than any prior President. The Department of Justice recently released a solicitation for grant applications focusing on strengthening families when a parent is incarcerated, including improving the visitation environments in corrections facilities. There is an new evidence-based parenting curriculum for incarcerated parents called Parenting Inside Out. The Federal Bureau of Prisons has had its second annual family visit day at federal corrections facilities. Even Sesame Street has a new muppet, Alex, whose father is incarcerated.
The current situation represents progress, although we still have a long way to go. Children are still being traumatized by witnessing the arrest of their parents. Few corrections facilities offer child-friendly visits. And far too many first time non-violent offenders are being incarcerated, including people who have only committed crimes of poverty (e.g., not paying parking tickets, not being able to afford bail, non-payment of child support).
In this blog, I will bring up issues that I encounter in my professional role as a scientist and an advocate for children whose parents are incarcerated. I will post recent findings from my lab; link to my colleague’s research and intervention that is making a difference in the lives of children and families; and discuss issues that I present in my graduate seminar entitled Children with Incarcerated Parents. Stay tuned!