Help Children Left Behind: Children of Incarcerated Parents

Target: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families and the U.S. Department of Justice

Goal: To get influential agencies to work together in order to implement programs that address and help the needs of children of incarcerated fathers and mothers.

It isn’t just the inmates that feel the devastating effects of their incarcerations–the criminal justice system affects the lives of millions of families each year. More than half of the approximately 2 million adults incarcerated in state and federal prisons are parents of children under the age of 18. Additionally, most prisons are 100+ miles away from families left behind, making visitation extremely problematic. Children must deal with issues of abandonment, severed attachment, separation, and, in many cases, inadequate ongoing care. Evidence shows that programs that combat recidivism positively effect the lives of the families left behind as well. Unfortunately, programs like these are not widely available in American prisons.

Because of fiscal constrains and shifting viewpoints within the criminal justice department that place greater emphasis on punishment rather than rehabilitation, children of incarcerated inmates are even further left behind. Children, usually innocent bystanders, are left at the mercy of the system. The incarceration of parents at this high of a level places a huge burden on the family emotionally, psychologically, and financially.

Child welfare agencies need to address the needs of this specific population of vulnerable children. While some moves have been made, they have been by-and-large at the local and community level. Even though the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 took steps to provide guidance on what is ‘reasonable’ in efforts to preserve and reunify families, it did nothing to address the many local and state-wide loopholes that criminal justice systems and welfare systems use, further ensuring that these children are left in the dark with no way of contacting their parents.

The San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership is currently working on a project that would support children’s visitation to all incarcerated mothers and fathers in county jail. Social worker agencies as well as the criminal justice system should implement programs like these nationwide, among many others, that address and provide specific aid to children and families with incarcerated parents: the children that have been left behind.


Dear U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families and the U.S. Department of Justice,

In addition to collaboratively setting up programs that combat recidivism among incarcerated parents, you must work together to come up with a nationwide system that specifically helps children of incarcerated parents maintain family unity while also providing economic safety nets for children that have lost a primary caregiver to the system.

With the growing number of parents incarcerated, more and more children are facing separation, financial squalor, and emotional devastation stemming from their parents being incarcerated. Social welfare services must provide specific aid for this population of children. These children grow up facing stigma and separation in addition to losing a parent to the system in general.

Children of incarcerated parents need funds and transportation in order to visit their parents, as well as help to take part in counseling with their parents. Doing so would provide hope and beneficial education on both sides of the barbed wire fence. Local and state-level programs that provide family counseling and combat complete familial separation have been shown to be effective. A collaborative, nationwide movement that does this should be implemented in all of our prisons to finally give hope and resources to these children that have been left behind by the system.


[Your Name Here]

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