~ By Colette
In 2006 when we published our issue, good data about the number of youth with a parent in prison was sparse. I was glad last August when the U.S. Department of Justice released new data in the special report “Parents in Prison and Their Minor Children.” While the whole report is full of compelling data, there are a few key points that I feel should be highlighted:
- 2.3% of U.S. youth under the age of 18 have a parent in prison. That translates to over 2 in every 100 youth, or 1,706,600 youth overall.
- Between 1991 and the middle of 2007, the number of children with an incarcerated parent increased by 80%.
- At the time of the survey, almost half of the children with a parent in prison were over age 10.
- More than one third of the children with a parent in prison will reach age 18 while their parent is incarcerated.
- About half of the incarcerated parents lived with their children either in the month before their arrest or just prior to incarceration.
- Additionally, over half of the incarcerated parents had provided the primary financial support for their children.
Effects on Youth
As is clear from these statistics, many youth experience parental incarceration and it can be a severe and traumatic disruption to their lives. Mary, in our online youth story, talks about the financial burden placed on her family when her father goes to jail. She writes:
“After my father went to jail, my mother started looking for a job. Now she works from 1 a.m. until 7 a.m. at a factory. Friday mornings she comes home at 8 a.m., and then at 10, she has to go to work at a hair salon so she just sleeps two hours…”
Beyond her mother’s increased absence from her home, Mary also struggles to cope with her father’s absence: “Today, while my father is passing through this (being in jail), I am in school trying to concentrate on what the teacher is saying and trying to show a happy face. It’s hard…”
I mention this in the blog, because this month’s free feature article is “Providing Support to Adolescent Children with Incarcerated Parents” by Ann Adalist-Estrin. In this article, Ms. Adalist-Estrin offers practical strategies for supporting youth with an incarcerated parent. She notes that “teachers, counselors, and others in the community play a powerful supporting role” in buffering youth who are experiencing parental incarceration.
In our youth story, Mary accentuates this need for support when she writes: “I have promised myself to keep being a good student and to not make my father disappointed in me. But sometimes I feel like quitting everything and not trying that hard anymore.”
However, it isn’t just Mary – or any individual youth – who needs support during this time. Parents and caregivers also need help so they can support their children. For example, Mary writes that: “My mother is a great person and strong too. But now that she’s the one who’s in charge of this family, sometimes the situation is too much stress for her, and she screams a lot and fights with us.”
As Ms. Adalist-Estrin notes, “Responding to the needs of these youth is a challenge to youth-serving agencies and programs. However, many can and will be able to identify the needs and provide appropriate services. Children of incarcerated parents … need communities that will promise to support them as they journey into adulthood.”
If you are new to these statistics and the support that children with incarcerated parents need, I hope these resources (the statistics from the DOJ report, this month’s free article, and Mary’s story) are useful. If you’ve worked with youth coping with parental incarceration, please leave a comment and let us know what has been effective for you.