Study: Having jailed parents can have lifelong effect on child's health

Tenn. study shows 10 percent of children in the state have had a parent incarcerated

Kristi L. Nelson
Knoxville News-Sentinel

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Having a parent in jail can have lifelong effects on a child's health and ability to succeed, a report released today indicates.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation made parental incarceration the focus of its most recent Kids Count report, "A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Kids, Families and Communities."

The report uses county-level national data to look at risks to more than 5 million U.S. children who have or had at least one parent in jail. In Tennessee, 144,000 children — 10 percent of all children — had a parent in jail or prison in 2011-2012.

In only two other states — Kentucky and Indiana — did more children have incarcerated parents, though five other states tied with Tennessee at 10 percent: Alaska, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio and Oklahoma.

The report found children with incarcerated parents are "significantly less likely to live in neighborhoods that are able to be supportive of families," both while a parent is jailed and after the parent's release.

Their children have an "invisible risk," said Kristin Bradley, prevention and early intervention services coordinator for Helen Ross McNabb Center. "We can see the risk of a child who may be in a difficult home situation, but the connection to an incarcerated parent often goes unnoticed," especially if the child is still being cared for by the remaining parent or other relatives.

Yet the National Survey of Children's Health counts parental incarceration among its Adverse Childhood/Family Experiences. Such "ACEs" —which include parental drug use and mental illness; abuse and neglect; exposure to violence and racism; and income instability — disrupt child development and can lead to a heightened risk in adolescence and adulthood of substance abuse, behavioral problems and even physical health issues, researchers think. Statistics also indicate they have increased risk of dropping out of school or becoming homeless.

Children who have a parent in jail or prison often had a disadvantage even before losing the parent and their income and contributions to the family, Bradley said.

"You have to be aware of what their life was like prior to the parent being arrested," she said. "There may already have been some adverse experiences going on in the home before that."

Regardless, it's important not to avoid the topic of the jailed parent, she said.

"When a child loses a parent through death, we talk about it, we validate their feelings," she said. "But when a parent is incarcerated, oftentimes we don't talk about it — either we're trying to protect the child, or the family is ashamed. …

"When we don't talk about it, it causes the child anxiety, fear. That can lead to depression, to the child feeling guilty. … Those behaviors will show up in school. Grades will drop. They will disconnect from friends, act out aggressively."

It's important for communities to, unless there's a danger to the child, help jailed parents stay bonded to their children, Bradley said, referencing a program in California that lets incarcerated mothers read a nightly bedtime story to their children via videocast, and programs in several other states that offer regular visitation of jailed parents in conjunction with support groups for children.

"We could do better" in Tennessee, she said.

The report said "preserving a child's relationship with a parent during incarceration … also benefits society, reducing children's mental health issues and anxiety, while also" reducing the risk parents will return to jail and increasing the chance they will successfully reintegrate into their communities after release."

But it notes children with incarcerated parents are disproportionately from poverty-mired communities that do less to support parents on their release. Children with incarcerated parents are typically younger — as are their parents — and living in low-income families of color, often with a single mother who has limited education. More than 15 percent of children with parents in federal prison and more than 20 percent of those with parents in state prison are 4 or younger. Latino children are twice as likely as white children to have a parent in jail or prison; black children are seven times more likely. When fathers are incarcerated, even if they weren't living with their children, the child's family's income drops by an average of 22 percent, the study said.

"Kids are smart — you can talk to them, in an age-appropriate way, about what's going on," Bradley said. "It gives them a sense of validation and gives them a way to process the situation, and that really helps with their fear and anxiety."

Copyright 2016 the Knoxville News-Sentinel

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