The Grandparenting Role When a Parent Is Incarcerated

Taking on the Caregiving Role Is One of the Possibilities

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Many prison inmates are also parents, a situation that has repercussions for their children and for the children's grandparents. Photo © cybergabi | Getty Images

One in 28 American children has an incarcerated parent, according to a Pew Research Center report. The problem is significant enough that in 2013 Sesame Street introduced a character whose father is in prison. The Sesame Street website offers a kit, "Little Children, Big Challenges," designed to help the families of prisoners cope. And in many families grandparents are a big part of that coping mechanism.

When the incarcerated parent is a mother, children are likely to need new homes and new caregivers. According to a study sponsored by the Bureau of Justice, around half of the children of incarcerated mothers went into grandparent care. Around one-tenth of the children of male prisoners were in grandparent care. (The discrepancy is because most children of male prisoners remain in the care of their mothers.) Women prisoners were also more likely than men prisoners to have children placed in foster care. Almost 10% of the women and only about 2% of the men had children in foster care.

Incarcerated Mothers Vs. Incarcerated Fathers

Families tend to be harder hit when mothers are incarcerated, for the following reasons:

  • Women are almost three times more likely to have been parenting in a single-parent family before their incarceration.
  • Besides being the main caregivers, women were as likely as men to be the major financial support for their children.
  • Because there are fewer women prisons, women are often incarcerated farther from their homes, making it more difficult for families to visit.

None of this points to a lack of impact when fathers are in prison. The prison terms of fathers tend to be longer than the prison terms of mothers, just to mention one complicating factor.

The impact of having an incarcerated parent of either gender is considerable, and grandparents are likely to feel the impact as well.

The Pros and Cons of Grandparent Child Care

Grandparents who are asked to take on the care of grandchildren while a parent is in prison should consider their decision carefully. Being a grandparent raising grandchildren is never an easy task. If the alternative is foster care, however, they might want to be aware of these statistics: Children of incarcerated parents who are placed in foster care are less likely to be reunited with their families, less likely to be adopted and more likely to simply "age out" of the system. (Children of Incarcerated Parents Fact Sheet)

The best situation is probably when grandparents are able to take on the primary burden of caregiving but have ample support from other family members. Alternatively, sometimes it is best if another family member is willing to take on the primary caregiving but will allow the grandparents to play an active role.

One of the big struggles for many grandparents is the social stigma of having a family member in prison. Depending upon the particular circumstances, sometimes an incarceration does not become widely known in the grandparents' community.

But when grandparents suddenly become caretakers of grandchildren, questions are bound to be asked. Grandparent caregivers should be prepared to answer those questions.

What to Tell the Grandchildren

Children whose parents have been incarcerated have different needs, according to their ages, but most children will need to be told something about why a parent is missing. As tempting as it is to lie to children, lying carries several hazards. Children may lose trust in a grandparent who lies to them. In addition, children often pick up on cues that indicate that some unhappy event has occurred, resulting in uneasiness and worry.

Telling the truth to the grandchildren also carries risks. A child who is open with his friends, teachers and others is likely to suffer some repercussions; however, keeping secrets is difficult for many children and also extracts a toll.

Whether to Visit

One of the knottiest problems that grandparent caregivers have to wrestle with is whether to take children to visit their parent in prison. Much depends upon the parent-child relationship before the parent's incarceration. Most experts agree that when a parent has been part of a child's life, the relationship should be maintained as much as possible during incarceration. If a parent has been absent from a child's life, a period of incarceration may not be the proper time for the parent to be reintroduced to the child, especially if the prison term is relatively short.

Parents may say that they don't want their children to see them in prison, because they don't want them to think of them in that setting, but for most children, the positive aspects of maintaining a relationship with a parent outweigh the negatives. The reality of a parent in prison may not be as troubling as what a child might imagine.

Children may say that they do not want to see parents, even when they do. This may be a result of anger toward the parent or apprehension about visiting the prison. Sometimes children who are allowed to forgo visits will feel guilty later. Most children are not mature enough to make an informed decision about visitation.

Advice for Visits

Procedures for visits can vary widely from facility to facility. Some prisons have special family days when restrictions may be relaxed, but these typically do not occur often enough to be a substitute for regular visitation.

Grandparents who are planning to take grandchildren to a jail or prison should get all the help available from prison services or social services so that visits go smoothly. It's usually advisable for grandparents to make a solo visit first to experience the procedures firsthand before bringing children along.

Although some children will react to the prison environment itself, many more will react to what they see as changes in their parent. Parents will be wearing unfamiliar clothing and may have had a change in haircut or facial hair.

Women may not be wearing their customary makeup, jewelry and accessories. Some prisoners will even be wearing handcuffs or shackles. Children will find such changes less shocking if they are prepared for them ahead of time, although there may be no way to prepare very young children.

Behavioral and Emotional Repercussions

Sometimes children act out following a visit with an incarcerated parent. Such behavior may be a way to release stress or to express sadness or anger. Grandparent caregivers should make allowances for such behavior but also be alert for signs that children may need counseling or other additional help.

Typical symptoms associated with incarcerated parents include the following:

  • Birth to Age 2: Lack of parent-child bond
  • Ages 2 to 6: Separation anxiety, impaired social development
  • Ages 7 to 10: Damaged self concept, regression
  • Ages 11 to 14: Rebellion against limits
  • Ages 15-17: Premature disruption of relationship with parent; possibly an increased risk of incarceration

(Source: Families Left Behind, Urban Institute)

In addition, children may feel that they are somehow to blame for a parent's incarceration. This is especially true if the crime is a crime of money. They may think that the parent committed the crime to support family members. Children may also feel that if they had been better, more loving children, their parent may not have offended. Grandparents should reassure the children that these assumptions are not true.

Other Means of Contact

Incarcerated parents should be encouraged to keep in contact with their children through other means, such as letters and phone calls. Some facilities now allow inmates to visit with family members via Skype or similar VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol). Grandparents can help grandchildren to do their part in such exchanges. Children can be encouraged to send drawings, school pictures, report cards and similar items to their incarcerated parents.

When Parents Are Released

Besides being beneficial to children, contact with family has been proven valuable to inmates as well. Statistics show that prisoners with strong family ties are more likely to have a job and a place to stay when they are released. They are also less likely to re-offend.

Many grandparent caregivers will have difficulty relinquishing the parental role when parents are released. In most cases, it makes sense for the transition to be gradual. If the courts or social services have played a role in the placement of the children, they will make the decision about if and when children should be returned to parental care. In the case of parents with substance abuse problems, the released inmates should have to go for a period of time to show that they will not fall back into addiction.

When the child care arrangement is a more informal one, parents may be able to rescind the paperwork which gave the grandparent authority over the child and reclaim custody, a custody which the grandparents may be reluctant to give up. When parents give up custody voluntarily and temporarily, they can usually regain it at will. In such cases, some grandparents would be well-advised to avoid a power struggle with parents, as that is the tactic most likely to result in their being denied contact with grandchildren. And that can be tragic for the grandparents and also for the grandchildren, who have already had enough trouble in their young lives.