Repairing Parent-Child Bonds Severed by Incarceration

Repairing Parent-Child Bonds Severed by Incarceration

February 26, 2013 | Akiba Bradford, Researcher, NCCD

bradford

The parent-child bond is critical to the well-being of children of all ages, as it later helps children navigate the day-to-day challenges of adolescence and adulthood. That bond is dependent upon the strategies parents use to raise children, as well as the emotions and attitudes parents express to influence the specific behavioral outcomes in child socialization.[1]

The parent-child bond is critical to the well-being of children of all ages, as it later helps children navigate the day-to-day challenges of adolescence and adulthood. That bond is dependent upon the strategies parents use to raise children, as well as the emotions and attitudes parents express to influence the specific behavioral outcomes in child socialization.[1]

However, many millions of children experience severed parental bonds. Social factors such as drug and alcohol abuse, poverty, violence, and incarceration can make families less attentive and responsive to their children’s needs, often contributing to their involvement with juvenile justice and/or child welfare systems.[2]

Roughly 2.25 million people are incarcerated in federal, state, and local prisons. Of those, 93% are poor males, and 1.7 million are parents.[3] Children of incarcerated parents are physically and emotionally isolated from the nurturing that is essential to their development. In addition, incarceration often impedes regular and necessary communication between relatives and temporary caregivers who are left to transition and stabilize the children. Some of these children experience depression and suicidal behavior; others act out with anger and violence. Often this trauma-influenced behavior is revealed in school settings, where zero-tolerance policies place youth of color at higher risk of contact with the juvenile justice system.[4] Similarly, all children are at higher risk of being arrested as a juvenile and an adult when their bonds with parents have been damaged by neglect and child abuse.[5] As a result, many will not attain high school graduation, employment, and marriage.[6]

The Alameda County Children with Incarcerated Parents Partnership (ACCIPP) was formed to address the needs of children with parents in jail or prison. This collaborative includes representatives from the Alameda County Public Health Department, the Alameda County Probation Department, and community-based organizations, along with community members who have incarcerated parents.

“The role of ACCIPP is to raise awareness of the issues children with incarcerated parents face and to advocate for system and policy change,” says Carol Burton, co-chair of ACCIPP. “Currently, no systems in Alameda County are accountable for this population. In order for Alameda County to address this population, we must collaborate across systems and push researchers to collect good data that will help us identify this invisible population.”

While no one solution can remedy the traumatic experiences of the severed-bond population, national and local systemic changes could help support these families. For example, Alameda County Department of Children and Family Services (ACDF) could extend their current practices to adequately address the unique needs of children with incarcerated parents. ACDF could also create joint policies with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office to preserve the parent-child bond.

Also, while some responsibility for this population lies with social service agencies and law enforcement, school districts around the country must provide alternatives to suspensions and expulsions; train teachers and administrators to handle the complex issues students express in school settings; and partner with community-based organizations to refer students to wraparound services. These collaborations will make the population visible before they fall through the cracks or get involved with the juvenile justice system and could ultimately help end the cycle of generational incarceration.

Akiba Bradford is a Researcher at NCCD.


[1] Maccoby, E. E. (1992). The role of parents in the socialization of children: An historical overview. Developmental Psychology, 28, 1006–1017; and Darling, N., & Steinberg, L. (1993). Parenting style as context: An integrative model. Psychological Bulletin, 113(3), 487–496.
[2] Finkelhor, D., Turner, H.A., Ormrod, R., Hamby, S.L., and Kracke, K. (2009). Children’s exposure to violence: A comprehensive national survey. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention
[3] The Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2009). Kinship care when parents are incarcerated: What we know, what we can do. Baltimore, MD: Author. 
[4] Hall , E., & Karanxha, Z. (2012). School today, jail tomorrow: The impact of zero tolerance on the over-representation of minority youth in the juvenile justice system. Power Play: A Journal of Educational Justice, 6‒9. http://www.emich.edu/coe/powerplay/documents/vol_04/no_01/ppj_vol_04_no_01_hall_karanxha.pdf
[5] Allwood, M. A., & Widom, C. S. (2013). Child abuse and neglect, developmental role attainment, and adult arrests. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 50(1).
[6] Allwood, M. A., & Widom, C. S. (2013). Child abuse and neglect, developmental role attainment, and adult arrests. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 50(1).