Supporting Children of Incarcerated Fathers

Man in prison
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"One of my most heart-wrenching experiences as a pastor involved working with a family where the father had been found guilty of a white collar crime and was incarcerated in the state prison," one of my friends told me. "The needs were so great and the stigma for the family and the children so serious that I really didn't even know where to start. Losing their income, struggling to keep their home, needing to have Mom return to the workforce, and totally disrupting family life was among the greatest burdens I have ever seen a family endure.

Having an incarcerated father changed everything in that family."

I have seen the pattern repeated frequently in fathers I have worked with over the years, even though the families are often in very different circumstances. My friend's parishioners had been an upstanding family in their community, but the father involved became engaged in illegal and unethical practices to try to keep his business afloat.

In other cases, fathers are arrested and convicted of crimes involving substance abuse, physical or sexual abuse or other more visible crimes. In some cases, Dad has been in and out of jail; in other cases, it is a first but serious offense.

I'm sure that the fathers involved in criminal activities never anticipate the cost likely to be paid by their wives and children when they commit the crimes for which they are incarcerated. Some fathers behind bars find that the freedom they miss most when incarcerated is the freedom to interact with their families, and especially their children.

Statistics About Incarcerated Fathers

  • In 2007, 1 in 43 American children had a parent in prison or jail
  • 1 in 15 Black children and 1 in 42 Latino children have an incarcerated parent, compared to 1 in 111 for white children
  • Half of the children with incarcerated parents are under ten years old
  • Between 15% and 20% of children entering the child welfare system have parents who are incarcerated

    (Source: Children and Families of the Incarcerated Fact Sheet, National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated, found at​ http://fcnetwork.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/fact-sheet.pdf)

    The Impact of Parental Incarceration on Children

    Children who have incarcerated fathers (which make up 90% of incarcerated parents) have some big challenges. They frequently go through a process of mourning the loss of their parent, which can cause issues with depression. Witnessing the parent's arrest is frequently an emotionally disabling experience, and creates serious anxiety that can be hard to overcome without help. There are also many children of incarcerated parents who experience symptoms related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

    ResearchersNancy G. La Vigne, Elizabeth Davies, andDiana Brazzell have cataloged some of the more serious challenges faced by children of incarcerated parents. In their monograph​ Broken Bonds -Understanding and Addressing the Needs of Children with Incarcerated Parentsthey suggest that these consequences frequently include feelings of shame, guilt and anger, social stigma, poor performance at school, alienation from the incarcerated parent, and potential future addiction issues.

    The evidence is clear - the children of incarcerated parents carry a terrible burden associated with the misdeeds of their parents.

    How Others Can Support Children of Incarcerated Fathers

    Child welfare counselors and social workers recommend several approaches to help children of fathers who are incarcerated.

    Spend a Lot of Time Listening

    Often children who have a parent in the criminal justice system are afraid of talking about their feelings. They may feel some personal responsibility for their parent's actions and irrationally think that they somehow contributed to the problem. Active listening and reassurance are important from trusted adults and friends. When their feelings are articulated, they can confront the situation and can process the feelings productively.

    Provide a Solid Role Model

    Frequently, children of incarcerated fathers have found their trust in their father violated and they may tend to project those untrusting feelings on men generally.

    Having adult male family members provide good, responsible role models can help overcome those feelings and create an environment where they can begin to trust again.

    Help with Contacting Father When Appropriate

    When contact with an incarcerated father is not dangerous to a child, helping the child stay in touch with her father can be a positive approach. Children can draw and color pictures, send letters and photos, and maybe even occasionally visit if practical. Often children need to be eased into reconnecting with their father; make sure that the child is ready and willing to be involved with a personal visit before taking that step.

    Support the Child's Caregiver

    Whether the children are living with their mother, another family member or a foster family, their caregivers can carry a significant burden. Often, the caregivers are dealing with their own feelings of anger or betrayal, even while trying to support their children's needs. Family members and friends can help caregivers verbalize their feelings and fears and can give them an occasional break from their overwhelming responsibilities.

    Children of incarcerated fathers almost always feel a sense of loss while their father is away from the family. Supporting them is important to help them deal with these challenges and to minimize the consequences of their father's situation. Being sensitive to their needs and supporting the children and their primary caregivers are among the best things we can do to help in a very dire family situation.