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The Counseling Aspects for Children With an Incarcerated Parent

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It is estimated that 1.5 million children in the United States have parents who are incarcerated. This number has grown by 82% over the last 20 years. The rate of mothers who are incarcerated has grown 122%. Currently, approximately half of all inmates have children. Commonly, these children have experienced disrupted living situations with more than one placement and a reduced quality of care. Most have limited financial resources and lack contact with parents.

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To understand the impact of parental incarceration, it is important to determine the nature of the family living arrangements prior to incarceration. Many of these children were living with non-parental caregivers prior to the incarceration of their mother or father. In fact, only half of the inmate parents in either state (43%) or federal prison (57%) lived with their children at the time of admission to prison. Gender differences are again evident. Specifically, mothers in either state (64%) or federal (84%) prisons were living with their children at the time of admission to prison. In contrast, only half of the fathers were living with their children at the time of their incarceration (44% for state and 55% for federal prison). Unfortunately the nature of the prior living arrangements is not generally considered in assessments of the impact of incarceration or children, but it would be expected that incarceration would carry different meanings and have different consequences for children who do or do not reside with their parents before incarceration. As we know from other research literatures, meaningful social relationships may or may not exist between children and their non-resident parent. The extent to which incarceration disrupts the contact patterns between these non-residential parents and their children, as well as the effects of incarceration on children who were living with their parent at the time of imprisonment, are both issues that merits examination.

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Children of incarcerated parents are at risk for negative social and academic outcomes, including internalizing and externalizing behavior problems, substance abuse, adult offending and incarceration, truancy, and school failure (see Murray, Farrington, Sekol, & Olsen, 2009, for a quantitative review). Affected children often experience additional risks in their environments (e.g., poverty, parental substance abuse, changes in caregivers); thus, it is unclear whether parental incarceration is the cause of children’s problematic outcomes or a risk marker (Murray & Farrington, 2008). Because large-scale longitudinal studies focusing on children of incarcerated parents have relied on secondary analyses of data that were not collected to assess potential effects of parental incarceration on children, they tell us little about developmental, familial, or contextual processes linking parental incarceration with children’s outcomes. However, numerous smaller-scale studies have begun to shed light on such processes, although many of the studies have methodological limitations such as small sample sizes, cross-sectional designs, and lack of comparison groups. Some of these studies have focused on parent–child contact during parental incarceration, and these are reviewed later in this article.

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In the final analysis, the incarceration of a parent may present a more complicated challenge for the child than other types of parental absence because of the added effects of social, community and institutional stigma. Although child development theories are useful in exploring the effects of parental incarceration on children, research is needed to better understand how the effects of parental incarceration differ from other types of parent-child separations and other childhood trauma.

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Murray J, Farrington DP, Sekol I, Olsen RF. Effects of parental imprisonment on child antisocial behaviour and mental health: A systematic review. Campbell Systematic Reviews. 2009;4:1–105.

Murray J, Murray L. Parental incarceration, attachment, and child psychopathology. Attachment & Human Development. 2010;12:289–309.

LaVigne NG, Naser RL, Brooks LE, Castro JL. Examining the effect of incarceration and in-prison family contact on prisoners’ family relationships. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice. 2005;21:314–355.

Hairston CF. Family programs in state prisons. In: McNeece RA, Roberts AR, editors. Policy and practice in the justice system. Chicago, IL: Nelson-Hall; 1996. pp. 143–157.

Loper AB, Carlson LW, Levitt L, Scheffel K. Parenting stress, alliance, child contact, and adjustment of imprisoned mothers and fathers. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation. 2009;48:483–503.

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The Counseling Aspects for Children With an Incarcerated Parent
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