In the United States of America, 2.7 million children have an incarcerated parent. About 10 million youths have had a mother or father in prison some time in their lives. The National Resource Center on Children & Families of the Incarcerated at Rutgers University state that these kids experience “adverse childhood experiences” characterized by stigma, shame and trauma.
Witnessing an arrest is one particular trauma mentioned by the experts with Rutgers. They referred to a survey finding that 67 percent of arrests involving parents happen in front of their children. A separate study found that these witnesses were 57 percent more likely to develop symptoms of severe post-traumatic stress disorder compared to kids who did not see their parents apprehended.
The Rutgers research also mentioned the economic burdens of collect phone calls from prisoners, difficult transportation arrangements for visitation and that “familial incarceration can be characterized as an ‘ambiguous loss’ leading to ‘disenfranchised grief.’”
While studies and anecdotes indeed exist concerning the psychological impact of having parents in prison, some researchers do not think it is enough, especially considering the growth of the prison population in recent years.
The NPR article “When A Parent Goes To Prison, A Child Also Pays A Price” discussed a study from the National Academy of Sciences that aimed to bridge some of the research gap.
Jeremy Travis, one of the authors for this study, pointed out that the rate of incarceration has quadrupled in the past four decades. Beside the psychological toll, Travis discussed the higher rates of homelessness and poor development outcomes for the children of prisoners. While his ideal solution is to have fewer prisoners, Travis admitted that there will always be some families and children carrying this burden.
As explained in the NPR piece, 22-year-old Ifetayo Harvey and her family experienced many difficulties after her father was arrested, such as social awkwardness and financial tension.
“My mom is a single parent of seven kids, and once my dad went away, this put a really big financial strain on my family,” Harvey said.
She was lucky to have an extended family and present role models to guide her through adolescence. Nevertheless, Harvey still had to navigate inquiries about her father from peers.
“It’s hard to explain to people because there’s such a heavy stigma against people who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated,” she said.
In the middle of Harvey’s troubles, she found empathy and understanding for other people and their own difficulties. She now finds power and healing in expressing her story to others.
Psychological counseling should strive to benefit children facing a variety of hardships, including parental abandonment. Otherwise, children of prisoners can experience poor performance in school and low self-esteem, among other challenges.
Sovereign Health of Rancho San Diego specializes in treating teenagers with a number of mental illnesses and other personal hurdles. Our professionals are ready to listen and empathize. Call our 24/7 helpline to find out more about our therapies.
Written by Nicholas Ruiz, Sovereign Health Group writer