STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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Contact with parents in prison may lessen the impact of incarceration on kids

prison cell
Dave Nakayama / Flickr CC / HTTP://J.MP/1SPGCL0
Having an incarcerated parent can put kids at higher risk of educational and social problems later in life.

Nearly 5 million children—or 7% of kids in the U.S.—have had a parent incarcerated at some point in their life.

Black children and children from disadvantaged families are the most likely to experience parental incarceration. And that can have significant consequences for their future development. 

Having a parent in prison is considered one of the key adverse childhood experiences, or ACES, we've previously discussed. The emotional trauma of having a parent in jail or prison can contribute to health, educational, and social problems. Kids with incarcerated parents have been found to be more likely to engage in risky behavior and to have chronic health conditions, anti-social behavior, and poor school performance.

One thing that may mitigate the negative impacts incarcerated parent are parent-child visits. Many correctional agencies offer video visits, in-person visits with or without contact, and extended family visits.

Of all those options, research points to contact visits in supportive, safe, and child-friendly spaces as the best way to help kids and families, according to the Urban Institute.

Despite that evidence, many correctional facilities are reducing visiting days or replacing in-person visits with Skype-like video calls in a bid to cut staff and save money. Over 600 prisons in 46 states have some sort of video visitation system, and more of those facilities do away with in-person visitation every year, according to Business Insider.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's recent budgetproposes cutting weekday visits for nearly 20,000 inmates in the state's 17 maximum-security prisons. A 16-year-old referred to only as Margarita, whose father has been incarcerated since she was three or four, told Broadly:

I don't think that's fair. If we have a vacation during the week, we want to see our parents. Kids—they want to see their parents more. These cuts are just taking away time from our parents.

In a recent report from the Urban Institute on parent-child visiting practices in prisons and jails, researchers made recommendations for how facilities should conduct parent-child visits, including:

  • Facilities should offer more opportunities for parent-child visits, especially contact visits;
  • Programs should offer more support to children and caregivers;
  • Listen to incarcerated parents and their families about their needs and what services they find helpful;
  • Practitioners and correctional agencies should provide ongoing staff training;
  • Practitioners and correctional agencies should understand how families function and work with families experiencing trauma and stress; and
  • Practitioners should engage with research and evidence to inform the continuous quality improvement of parent-child visits.

The bond kids have with their parents teach them how to form and sustain healthy relationships throughout their lives. Incarceration shouldn’t deprive kids of that opportunity.

Paulette is a blogger for Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project, which looks at kids from low-income families and what it takes to get them ahead. She previously interned as a reporter in the Michigan Radio newsroom.
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