Having a parent incarcerated is a stressful, traumatic experience of the same magnitude as abuse, domestic violence and divorce, according to a report released Monday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
The report, A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Kids, Families, and Communities, finds more than 5 million kids in the U.S. - 228,000 in Michigan - have had a parent in jail or prison at some point in their lives.
Michigan ties with five other states for third in the percentage of kids who have had an incarcerated parent (10 percent), falling behind Kentucky (13 percent), and Indiana (11 percent).
An overwhelming percentage of incarcerated parents are fathers, many of them young. From 1980 to 2000, the number of kids with a dad in prison or jail rose by 500 percent. About 45 percent of men in state and federal prisons, age 24 or younger, are fathers.
There are also racial disparities.
Compared with their white peers, African-American kids are seven times, and Latino kids two times, more likely than white kids to have a parent incarcerated.
So what does this mean for kids, their families, and communities? According to the report there are five major effects:
1. An added financial burden
Losing a parent who is the breadwinner, often for a prolonged period, leaves families scrambling to cover basic needs along with legal and other court fees. When fathers are incarcerated, family income can drop by an average of 22 percent. When no parent remains to care for a child, extended family members step in — often without proper support. Parents left behind are more likely to cite problems with child care as a reason for quitting or not taking a job. Mothers also report being unable to pay for necessities such as food, utilities, rent and medical care for their children.
2. A blow to child and family health and well-being
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. Kids of incarcerated mothers, in particular, are at greater risk of dropping out of school. Teachers can further undermine children’s performance and self-esteem by lowering their academic expectations. And when these kids grow up, they are more likely to contend with poor mental and physical health.
3. A drain on community resources and opportunity
One study found that if incarceration rates hadn’t increased during a 24-year period, the U.S. poverty rate would have fallen by 20 percent, rather than remaining relatively steady. The sheer number of absent people depletes available workers and providers, while constraining the entire community’s access to opportunity — including individuals who have never been incarcerated. Even for residents who have had no contact with the criminal justice system, heightened police vigilance can cast a shadow over their children, families and homes.
4. Barriers to employment for returning parents
Time behind bars limits parents’ options for steady employment that pays well enough to support their kids. Their lack of training or work experience and an interrupted or illegitimate employment history, combined with typically low literacy levels and educational attainment, close the doors to most family-supporting jobs. Having to check the box on a job application that confirms their criminal record seals those doors tight.
5. Obstacles for families to secure housing
Returning parents struggle to find or maintain safe, stable housing for their families or, if they live apart, just for themselves. Although the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s public housing regulations permit them as residents, local housing authorities can exercise discretion — and frequently do, with blanket bans on people with criminal records. Private landlords automatically reject these individuals without considering whether their criminal histories pose any danger to other residents.
What changes can be made to improve outcomes for these kids? The report details three policy recommendations, including:
- Ensure children are supported while parents are incarcerated and after they return;
- Connect parents who have returned to the community with pathways to employment; and
- Strengthen communities, particularly those disproportionately affected by incarceration and reentry, to promote family stability and opportunity.
Mary King is executive director for the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency. She said in a press release:
There are more than a quarter of a million kids struggling with an incarcerated parent in Michigan, and that number is too high for them to continue to be disregarded. We have to address this issue from both sides—working to pass reforms to reduce incarceration in the first place, and addressing the necessary supports to help these kids through difficult times, and connect their parents with the proper job and education training assistance upon their return.
You can read the full report here.