REPORT: How Parental Incarceration Impacts Our Kids

By Kenrya Rankin Apr 26, 2016

According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Center, more than 5.1 million children in America have a parent who has spent time behind bars during their formative years. And Black and Latino kids are seven and two times, respectively, more likely to have an incarcerated parent than their White peers. A new report from the Baltimore-based philanthropy organization explores how incarceration impacts the lives of those children long after their parents return home.

“A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Kids, Families and Communities” was released yesterday (April 25), during the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Reentry Week, which aims to connect the formerly incarcerated with employment and other resources that are vital to recovering after even a short stint in jail or prison.

The report highlights several major ways that incarceration changes children’s lives, including:

Financial destabilization: When a breadwinner loses a source of income due to incarceration, families suffer. Add in legal and court fees, and a child’s financial situation can rapidly decline. When fathers are incarcerated, family income drops by an average of 22 percent. And the parents left behind often experience a drop in thier own job stability, due to lack of support and childcare. Fully 65 percent of families cannot meet their basic needs when a member is behind bars.

Emotional distress: Parental incarceration is detrimental to children’s health and development. “The trauma of being separated from a parent, along with a lack of sympathy or support from others, can increase children’s mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, and hamper educational achievement.” They are also at higher risk of dropping out of school and having poor mental and physical health as adults.

Housing barriers: Kids with incarcerated parents are more likely to live in neighborhoods perceived as unsafe, with fewer resources to buoy them. And living in a neighborhood with a high incarceration rate automatically increases all residents’ chances of battling depression and anxiety.

“Our nation’s over-reliance on incarceration has left millions of children poorer, less stable and emotionally cut off from the most important relationship of their young lives,” Patrick McCarthy, president and CEO of the Casey Foundation, said in a press release sent to Colorlines. “We are calling on states and communities to act now, so that these kids—like all kids—have equal opportunity and a fair chance for the bright future they deserve.”

The report includes three overarching recommendations aimed at improving the lived experiences of these children:

  • Ensure children are supported while parents are incarcerated and after they return.
  • Connect parents who have returned to the community with pathways to employment.
  • Strengthen communities, particularly those disproportionately affected by incarceration and reentry, to promote family stability and opportunity.


Read the full report for details on the recommendations.