The Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison recently released Focus (Vol. 32with several articles that examine the issue of paternal incarceration and its effects on fathers and their children during and after imprisonment. The issue of parental incarceration is of great concern for several reasons. First and foremost is the sheer numbers: On any given day in America, it is estimated that more than 1.7 million children under 18 years old have a parent incarcerated in a state (52%) or federal (63%) prison—91% of all incarcerated parents are fathers.[1] And, over 10 million children are living with a parent who has come under some form of criminal justice supervision at some point in the child’s life.[2]

Second, the challenges that children with incarcerated fathers face are significant. The trauma of loss and a range of economic hardships and social challenges are associated with paternal incarceration, including:

  • Poor school performance (Lower reading comprehension and math problem-solving skills among girls and reduced attentional capacities among boys).[3]
  • Behavioral and mental health issues (Feelings of shame and stigma, depression, anxiety, attention problems, and increased aggression among boys and young men);
  • Crime, delinquency, and criminal justice contact;
  • Health problems (Higher rates of obesity among girls and increased infant mortality regardless of gender); and
  • Greater risk of foster care placement.[4]

These findings hold true whether a father was living with his child at the time of his imprisonment or not, suggesting that paternal absence due to incarceration uniquely diminishes the well-being of children. The Office of Family Assistance recognizes this and has responded by devoting a portion of Responsible Fatherhood funding to ReFORM efforts (Responsible Fatherhood Opportunities for Reentry and Mobility grants). These grants provide healthy relationship, responsible parenting, and economic stability activities for incarcerated and returning fathers and their families. Additionally, they provide supportive services in partnership with other community organizations and aim to improve and strengthen the quality and stability of fathers, couples and/or family relationships.

Additionally, the National Reentry Resource Center (NRRC) provides education, training, and technical assistance to states, tribes, territories, local governments, service providers, non-profit organizations, and corrections institutions working on prisoner reentry. The NRRC incorporates work devoted to incarcerated and reentering fathers and children and families of the incarcerated.

The challenges associated with paternal incarceration and reentry are many and complex, so it is encouraging that research and practice in this area is being supported. Although a causal mechanism is not yet totally clear, we know having an incarcerated father is a marker for additional risk factors and that these children are more frequently exposed to violence, parental substance abuse, child abuse and neglect, and parental mental health issues.[5]

As a researcher, policy analyst, and advocate for vulnerable children, I began working on this issue over ten years ago. However, for me, paternal incarceration is deeply personal as well. My father was incarcerated for a great part of my childhood. I share many of the experiences and feelings identified by research on children with incarcerated dads. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I was able to feel and identify the intense pain of loss associated with my father’s absence and the ways it has navigated my life, to a large extent, without my conscious awareness.

People have asked me what I needed or what would have been most helpful to me while my father was in prison. The full list is too long for a blog post, but I know I needed to stop running from “Stacey, you are going to be just like your father.” That is, I needed help understanding my father, his criminality, and his substance addiction to make sense of myself. That understanding needed to begin much earlier than it did.

Most of all, I needed (and wanted) my father—even when he was incarcerated. Good, bad, troubled, abused, addicted—all that he was, is part of me too. I wish he had had the opportunities and support he needed to improve that list before, during, and after his incarceration. Because that’s what I needed.  Often, the most effective way to help children is to help their parents.

For more information and resources on Reentry visit the National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse at www.fatherhood.gov


[1] Lauren E. Glaze and Laura M. Maruschak, “Parents in Prison and Their Minor Children,” published by The Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2008. Retrieved from http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=823

[2] Ibid

[3] Anna R. Haskins, “How does paternal incarceration affect children’s cognitive and noncognitive development?” Focus Vol. 32, No. 2, Fall/Winter 2015–16, Institute for Research on Poverty.

[4] Signe Hald Andersen and Christopher Wildeman, “If dad is in prison, will his children end up in foster care?” Focus Vol. 32, No. 2, Fall/Winter 2015–16, Institute for Research on Poverty.

[5] Oliver Edwards and Ray Shannon, “An Attachment and School Satisfaction Framework for Helping Children Raised by Grandparents,” School Psychology Quarterly 23 (2008): 125-138; Keva M. Miller, “The Impact of Parental Incarceration on Children: An Emerging Need for Effective Interventions,” Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal 23 (2006): 472-486; Susan D. Phillips, Barbara J. Burns, H. Ryan Wagner, Teresa L. Kramer, and James M. Robbins, “Parental Incarceration Among Adolescents Receiving Mental Health Services,” Journal of Child and Family Studies 11 (2002): 385-399; Julie Poehlmann, “Children’s Family Environments and Intellectual Outcomes During Maternal Incarceration,” Journal of Marriage and Family 67 (2005): 1275-1285.

Posted by Stacey Bouchet, PhD

Dr. Bouchet is the Lead Research Consultant at Fathers Incorporated and the Founder and Principal Consultant of Bouchet and Associates—Strategic Consulting for Social Change. She has written extensively on issues related to fathers, family strengthening, and vulnerable populations. She provides training, technical assistance, writing, research, and evaluation to the Health and Human Services field.

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