Academic journal article Child Welfare

Children with Parents in Prison: Child Welfare Policy, Program, and Practice Issues

Academic journal article Child Welfare

Children with Parents in Prison: Child Welfare Policy, Program, and Practice Issues

Article excerpt

As the rate at which adults are being incarcerated in the United States escalates, child welfare professionals are encountering growing numbers of children who have parents in prison. Current estimates indicate that as many as 1.5 million children have an incarcerated parent; many thousands of others have experienced the incarceration of a parent at some point in their lives. These vulnerable children face unique difficulties, and their growing numbers and special needs demand attention. Challenges facing the child welfare system as it attempts to work with this population are explored.

An estimated 200,000 children in this country have an imprisoned mother and more than 1.6 million have an imprisoned father.' With the nation's incarcerated population growing by an average of 6.5% each year [Gilliard & Beck 1998], the number of children with parents in prison will likely continue to increase. Parental incarceration-and the crimes and arrests that precede it-cause chaos in the lives of these children, including traumatic separations and erratic shifts from one caregiver to another. Most children with incarcerated parents live in poverty before, during, and after their parents' incarceration [Johnston 1995a].

The increasing incarceration rate for adult women is particularly foreboding because incarcerated women are often the sole caregivers of their children. Since 1985, the number of women in prison has almost tripled [U.S. Dept. of Justice 1997]. On any given day, more than 100,000 women are being held in this country's jails and prisons [Gilliard & Beck 1998; U.S. Dept. of Justice 1997]. Six percent of women entering prison are pregnant [Beck et al. 1992].

The Scope of the Problem

Although the number of children affected by parental incarceration can be estimated, the true scope of the problem is uncertain because few reliable statistics exist. For the most part, law enforcement does not gather information about the children of arrested adults and correctional institutions do not ask prisoners for specific information about their children. Because there is no specific agency or system charged with collecting data about this population, it is unclear how many children are affected, who they are, or where they live.

In fulfilling its mission to protect vulnerable children and promote family stability, the child welfare system has been and will continue to be significantly affected by the increasing number of children with incarcerated parents. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' 1994 National Study of Protective, Preventive and Reunification Services Delivered to Children and Their Families [U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children's Bureau 1997] identified "incarceration" as the presenting problem of the primary caregiver in 4% of the cases of children and families who received child welfare services in 1994. Studies suggest that 8-10% of the children of female prisoners and 1-2% of the children of male prisoners are in some form of out-of-home care [Beck et al. 1992; Beckerman 1994; Bloom & Steinhart 1993; Johnston 1995d; Snell 1994]. Many more children with incarcerated parents likely have intermittent contact with the child welfare system.

Although case workers presumably know on a case-by-case basis when children have parents in prison, a 1997 Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) survey of state child welfare agencies confirmed that most state information systems do not capture data about parental incarceration in a way that permits analysis of the information on a systemwide basis [Child Welfare League of America 1998].2 In the CWLA survey, only 21% of the 38 responding states indicated that their systems capture this information at the intake and assessment phase. Of these states, several clarified that their systems capture the information only under certain circumstances such as when the parent's incarceration is the primary reason for the placement. …

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