Staying in touch through writing, phone calls, and remote video visits can help.
At many corrections facilities across the United States, in-person visits are being curtailed because of concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus. In confined situations, like jails or prisons, or nursing homes or cruises, the virus seems to spread rapidly. To protect incarcerated individuals from contracting COVID-19, limiting physical contact with the outside world is key way of enacting social distancing orders, in addition to releasing low level offenders and those who have not been convicted.
Many families and professionals have asked me about whether or not this can harm children who are used to visiting their incarcerated parents. Others have wondered about different forms of contact between incarcerated parents and their children. First of all, the research that I know about indicates that letter writing and other similar activities such as sending cards, drawings, photos, etc. are typically positive for both children and their incarcerated parents. They are a relatively inexpensive way of staying in touch. This is a link to a Sesame Street video of a boy, Nilo, who writes to his incarcerated mom and what it means to him.
Phone calls are the most common type of communication between parents and their children during parental incarceration. The research is generally positive regarding this type of parent-child contact, with three caveats. The first caveat is that very young children are not good at phone conversations because of where their language and cognitive skills are at–they often point to objects or people that they can see (but the person on the other end of the phone cannot) and they often play with items in front of them instead of talking. If an adult who is with the child can facilitate this type of call by narrating the child’s play or telling the parent what the child is pointing to, it can go pretty well. The second caveat is that daily phone calls can sometimes relate to child anxiety, but we do not know the direction of this effect: It could be that daily calls remind children of the separation and make them anxious or it could be that children with anxiety want to talk with their parent every day because it is reassuring. The third caveat is that phone calls can be expensive for families, especially from jails.
The research on visits between children and their incarcerated parents is more nuanced (and you can read more about it here). But for the purposes of this discussion, I can say that remote video visits are often perceived by children as relatively normative–they are used to talking with absent relatives and friends through Google Hangout, Skype, FaceTime, etc. And even though it is nowhere as good as child-friendly visits, where parents and children can hug and play games in a developmentally appropriate environment with much support, parents report positive feelings about seeing their children through remote video also. Video visiting can also be costly.
Many scholars and advocates have called on corrections to offer free phone calls or video visits as a way for families to stay in touch with their incarcerated loves ones during this worldwide pandemic, when visits are limited. I think that would help children know that their parent is safe and still loves them.