In the United States, more than 5 million children have experienced a co-resident parent leaving for jail or prison. After attending the National Council on Family Relations 2016 Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota, I learned about the need to promote the health and well-being of families affected by incarceration. Rebecca J. Shlafer, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, gave a powerful presentation called, Communicating Research to Inform Practices and Policies on Incarceration, emphasizing the huge effect that an incarcerated parent has on children. Half of men in prison are fathers and two thirds of women in prison are mothers. Having an incarcerated parent affects children in multiple ways. They may experience financial hardships, unpredictability in family relationships, difficulty with school relationships and academic performance, struggles with mental and physical health, and social and institutional stigma.
Because the incarceration rate is still increasing for women, although it has slightly decreased for men, changes in the criminal justice system are necessary (Shlafer, 2016). Offering parenting programs in prisons and jails for both mothers and fathers will help strengthen parent-child relationships and educate incarcerated individuals about the importance of being a parent. Prof. Shlafer worked with the University of Minnesota Extension Program to develop a resource that involved reviewing the literature on children’s mental health when parents are incarcerated. The document also includes implications for policy and practice.
Another change called for is reducing shame in both the incarcerated person and their families and corresponding stigma in society. So many people are affected by incarceration and instead of shaming children and families, we need to be accepting and offering help to those affected. What if there could be alternatives to incarceration in our criminal justice system? In other countries (e.g., Denmark), there have been policy shocks that increase the use of home monitoring and community service as alternatives to incarceration. In addition, the benefits of drug rehabilitation programs for individuals who commit crimes have been documented. Shlafer raised thoughtful and valuable questions about these issues, which inspired me to consider ways to improve relationships between the incarcerated parents and their children and the positive effects of offering support groups for children as well as the incarcerated individuals.