Ripple Effect of Incarceration on Children

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

The boy only remembers the colorful flashing lights and the sounds of yelling. When he crawled out from under his bed, the boy saw his father being handcuffed and escorted to a police car.

It was at that instant when the boy’s life would forever change. His mother could no longer afford to pay the rent and they had to move in with relatives. The boy had nightmares for several months afterward of the night his father was arrested. His school performance began to suffer and he began to get into fights at school.

The cost of incarceration reverberates well beyond the person that is being sent to prison. This is particularly true when parents are the ones who are arrested. Children with parents who have been imprisoned experience high levels of stress and trauma. The trauma experienced with parental incarceration has been equated to the trauma seen in children who experience domestic violence, divorce, or abuse.

The issue of incarcerated parents is of particular importance in Kentucky. It is estimated that 13% of all children have had a parent who is or has been incarcerated. This means that roughly two to three children in each school classroom have or have had a parent in prison.

Most children experience a parent being imprisoned when they are still in elementary school or even younger. The departure of a father often leaves the child with a young single mother who has a limited education and living in an impoverished environment. These circumstances create great instability in children’s lives.

Parent imprisonment weakens critical attachments that are usually formed between children and their parents. These attachments are needed to give children the confidence to take risks and forge new relationships. Without secure attachments, children are at-risk for poor developmental outcomes.

An additional burden children experience is that they find that others in the community show a lack of support or sympathy for them due to their parent’s imprisonment. This means children lose out on both a high quality attachment with the incarcerated parent and support from the community. The result is that children become less resilient and find it more difficult to overcome other obstacles that come along.

The incarceration of a parent often forces families to have to move, possibly multiple times. Moving creates more instability in children’s lives as each move disrupts their already fragile social connections and sources of support.

Children of imprisoned parents who experience instability and significant disruptions in their lives are likely to experience a host of negative outcomes. These include increased mental health issues and poorer academic achievement.

These children need everyone’s support as the live through this trying time in their lives. If you are interested in more information about incarcerated parents, there is a recent report, A Shared Sentence, by the Annie E. Casey Foundation that is available for download at

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Friday on June 10, 2016

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