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Open Access 08-01-2024 | Original Paper

“Devastating…Having My Child on the Opposite Side of a Window”: Family Visiting Experiences and Considerations for Supporting Youths with Incarcerated Parents

Auteurs: Leslie N. Jones, Elizabeth G. Keller, Kelly J. Kelleher, Deena J. Chisolm, Samantha J. Boch

Gepubliceerd in: Journal of Child and Family Studies | Uitgave 1/2024

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Abstract

Most people who are incarcerated in the US are parents, yet little is known about the context and experiences of family connection when a parent is incarcerated. This study aims to provide family perspectives and experiences during a parent’s incarceration for providers and organizations to consider when supporting children who have incarcerated parent(s) and their families throughout incarceration. From March to August 2020, we recruited adolescents (12–18 years) who have or had a parent incarcerated, caregivers of children of incarcerated parents, and parents upon one year of release. Families were recruited by emailing flyers to community-based organizations and schools using convenience-based and snowball recruitment methods. Participants were interviewed using a semi-structured interview guide. We interviewed 26 participants: 10 youth, 6 parents released from incarceration in the last year, and 10 caregivers, who mainly resided in the state of Ohio. Three themes emerged during the incarceration phase: the high cost of parental incarceration (financial, emotional, and visiting), barriers to connection (intimidating and strict process, physical barriers, quality of phone calls), and family resource suggestions (age and developmental communication resources, community-based supports, stigma reduction). Families primarily discussed these themes along with the need for additional individual and community-based supports. Findings relay the importance of family-centered interventions during incarceration to reduce barriers to staying connected. We discuss families’ suggestions on supportive services to help the family unit access resources and improve communication during incarceration, to better support the next phase of transition, reintegrating back into society.
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Introduction

More than five million children in the United States have had a parent incarcerated in jail or prison at some point (Murphey & Cooper, 2015). Children with incarcerated parents are at risk for mental health difficulties (Boch et al., 2019; Wildeman et al., 2018), poor school outcomes (Hagan & Foster, 2012; Nichols et al., 2015; Testa & Jackson, 2020), and foster care placement (Gibbs et al. 2016) compared to their unexposed peers. Incarcerating a parent can strain or sever parent-child connections, perpetuate stigma, and prolong or worsen household poverty for children and families left without consideration or assistance. Due to the U.S. correctional system’s incredible size and churn, many have advocated for the need to better understand how family members are affected and fare throughout the loved one’s incarceration (Lee & Wildeman, 2021; Siegel & Luther, 2019; Wildeman et al., 2018).
One important aspect of incarceration that influences outcomes for both the person incarcerated and the child/family is the extent to which contact is maintained. These connections are needed to maintain intra-family relationships (Song et al., 2018) and to improve outcomes post-release for persons incarcerated and their families (e.g. reduce chances of recidivism, better family reunification processes) (De Claire & Dixon, 2015; Folk et al., 2019). The maintenance of family connections has also been found to improve safety within the correctional environment. For example, two studies completed in Ohio identified a significant relationship between increased visitation and decreased rule infractions in the correctional setting (Mohr, 2012). Others have reported how incarcerated persons have lower rates of recidivism (or return to jail or prison) and decreased stress if family ties are maintained through family visits (Martin & Phaneuf, 2018). More recent evidence found that frequent parent child visits in jails that offered both on-site video and Plexiglas visits resulted in fewer child externalizing problems, but jails with only Plexiglas visits resulted in more externalizing behaviors (Pritzl et al., 2022).
The primary ways families stay connected throughout incarceration are via phone calls, video calls, writing letters/emails, and visiting (Smith & Young, 2017). In-person visits, with and without physical interaction, are more widely available than video visiting (often a kiosk) but have significant barriers of time, cost, and travel requirements. Due to these barriers, phone calls and letters remain the most used methods of contact (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008) with their own associated costs. Nationally, the average cost of a 15-min call from jail is around $6 (up to $24 in some states) (Wagner & Jones, 2019), while video visits are about $1.50 per minute (Rabuy and Wagner 2015). An informal investigation led by the Marshall Project found that families spend hundreds of dollars each month to stay connected (Lockwood & Lewis, 2019). In-person visits can incur substantial transportation costs as most detained people are between 100 and 500 miles away from their family (Rabuy & Kopf, 2015), and there are high costs of virtual visits when opportunities for in-person contact are limited or non-existent (Skora Horgan & Poehlmann-Tynan, 2020). These costs are in addition to the remaining court and legal fees, the burden of unpaid child support (or limited child support due to very low wages for those that work inside full-time), and challenges associated with finding additional childcare for parents affected by incarceration.
Previous studies have broadly investigated the socio-emotional and psychological effects of parental imprisonment on child and family health (Arditti, 2012a, 2012b; Davis & Shlafer, 2017; Zeman & Dallaire, 2017). Children of incarcerated parents often cycle through numerous emotions and grief ranging from denial/disbelief, confusion, sadness, helplessness, anger, and ambivalence to acceptance (Kautz, 2019). These emotions and reactions depend upon the honesty and relationship between the incarcerated parent and caregiver (Kautz, 2019). Children who have visited their incarcerated parents are likely to experience mixed emotions, both positive (e.g., excitement, improved attitudes and behaviors around visits) and negative as a source of pain (e.g., depressive symptoms, emotional outbursts, fear/anxiety) (Martin & Wells, 2015). Minoritized children of incarcerated parents who had phone contact and wrote letters to their parent were more likely to visit compared to children of White, non-Hispanic fathers (Shlafer et al., 2020). While children of fathers who did not plan to live with their children after incarceration, children who witnessed their fathers’ arrest, and children who witnessed their fathers’ criminal activity were less likely to visit than their counterparts (Shlafer et al., 2020). Importantly, evidence has acknowledged the resiliency and positive coping of children who have incarcerated parents (Johnson & Easterling, 2015; Nesmith & Ruhland, 2008; Thulstrup & Karlsson, 2017) and the need for a critical reframing of resilience to contextualize the adversity of parental incarceration (Johnson & Arditti, 2023). The present study has extended previous research efforts by including multiple family perspectives and provides considerations on how to best support family relationships throughout incarceration, including visiting.

Methods

Sampling and Recruitment

Participants were recruited using a convenience-based sampling method with a recruitment flyer. To be eligible to participate in this study, participants had to be (1) English-speaking and (2) meet one of the following three classifications: (a) adolescents between the ages of 12–18 years who have experienced a parent’s incarceration; (b) parents (over the age of 18 years) who have been released from jail or prison within the last year; or (c) caregivers (over the age of 18 years) of children who have had incarcerated parents. Emails informing about the study purpose, design, and eligibility criteria, and recruitment flyers (for organizations to use at their discretion) were sent to numerous schools, reentry/transitional housing programs, and other community organizations that provide services to families affected by household incarceration primarily located within Ohio. Several persons also shared our recruitment emails to other listservs, including The National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated, the Correctional Education Association of Wisconsin, Higher Education in Prison listserv, and the Wings for LIFE International listserv. Most participants were recruited from Ohio; however the recruitment flyer was shared with other national listservs.
Semi-structured telephone interviews explored family experiences and factors supporting children of incarcerated parents during incarceration to include methods of communication with incarcerated family members. The questionnaire was carefully designed by the multidisciplinary research team (including health providers) and informed by Bronfenbrenner’s Bioecological Model of Human Development (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006) to capture family experiences across multiple contexts such as in the home, workplace, school, and communities. For example, the interview included questions such as “What is important for schools, workplaces, and communities to know when a child has a parent in jail/prison?”, and “What are some resources schools or communities should offer for families affected by incarceration?” Adolescents, caregivers, and parents were asked similar questions. The interview guide was structured to ask participants about three phases of incarceration: upon arrest, during incarceration and reentry (if applicable). On average, the interviews took about 60 min to complete. Participants who reached out to be involved in the study (N = 41) were contacted up to three times before categorized as lost to follow up (n = 15).
The study interview guide was designed to capture family experiences, perspectives, and ideas to improve the visiting experience. First, demographic questions were asked to capture background information and justice characteristics of the parent experiencing incarceration. The interview questions were broadly asked across all groups (e.g., adolescents, caregivers, and parents upon 1 year of release) about their living situation, school, and neighborhood experiences, visiting experiences and processes, means of contact, needs for support, recommendations on how to improve visiting, and supports for families affected by parental incarceration. General questions were asked about the impact of having a loved one incarcerated on their health and wellbeing upon arrest, during incarceration, and upon re-entry. Findings from the time period of re-entry are published elsewhere (Keller et al., 2022). All participants provided verbal consent before participation. Participants were also instructed not to use the names or any identifiable information of the other parent and/or youth. The Nationwide Children’s Hospital Institutional Review Board approved the study.

Data Collection and Analysis

From March 2020 to August 2020, one trained research staff member conducted all phone interviews, which were recorded and transcribed. Recruitment ended when data saturation was met (after 6 months), which the research team agreed was after 26 interviews were completed. Participants were compensated $40 for their time. Qualitative content analysis occurred in two phases (Vaismoradi et al., 2013). During phase one, three research team members used open coding to review each transcript independently, then generate initial codes and organize the data into categories. During phase two, researchers met weekly over several months to compare, discuss, and modify codes based on a consensus of emerging patterns and themes. Reviewing initial codes deduced broad themes. The research team analyzed codes individually and collectively to ensure consistency of interpreted codes, patterns, and themes. Family dyads were included to capture perspectives within the family unit – however, the groups were first analyzed separately by positionality (e.g. adolescent group, caregiver group, parents upon 1 year of release of prison). The interconnectedness of participants was considered during each phase and presented as overall considerations for families affected parental incarceration. Quotes were agreed upon by all research team members to be representative of the themes. We separately confirmed that direct quotes provided context that represented family experiences.

Findings

The demographic characteristics of the adolescents and adults (caregivers and parents upon one year of release of incarceration) are summarized in Table 1. The final sample of participants (N = 26) consisted of youths (n = 10; 38.5%), parents upon one year of release from jail or prison (n = 6; 23.1%), and caregivers of children with incarcerated parents (n = 10; 38.5%). Of the participating youths (N = 10), most identified as female (90.0%, n = 9) and 50.0% (n = 5) were older adolescents (16–17 years old). Forty percent (n = 4) of the adolescents identified as Black or African American. Four of the youth participants experienced a father’s incarceration, two experienced a mother’s incarceration, and four experienced both parents’ incarceration. Most of the adult participants were female (75% or n = 12), and more than half identified as Black or African American (56.3% or n = 9). More than half of the adult participants were over the age of 45 years (75% or n = 12). Most of the caregivers of the children exposed to parental incarceration identified as grandparents (70% or n = 7). All participants lived in the United States, with most residing in Ohio (50% or n = 13). In addition, three youth-caregiver familial dyads were among the participants. The total number of times a parent/parents were incarcerated, and the totaled sentence duration (or length of time spent incarcerated) varied widely among the youth, caregiver, and recently released parent sub-samples. About half of the youth and caregiver sample reported that one or both parents were sentenced for a total of 9 years or longer (55.0% or n = 11 out of 20) and were incarcerated 5 or more times (45.0% or n = 9 out of 20). Parents released from jail or prison within the past year reported that they were incarcerated 1–2 times, and most indicated that their sentence length was 5 years or more (n = 66.6% or n = 4 out of 6). There were also caregivers who had a history of jail/prison involvement but were not within one year of release. In turn, the 26 participants represent varied perspectives and vantage points to ultimately capture broad similarities, differences, and considerations for families affected by parental incarceration. The three themes that emerged include: the high cost of parental incarceration (financial, emotional, and visiting), barriers to connection (intimidating and strict process, physical barriers, quality of phone calls) and family resource suggestions (age and developmental communication resources, community-based supports, stigma reduction). Table 2 summarizes the main themes.
Table 1
Demographic and parental incarceration characteristics of the adolescent, caregiver, and previously incarcerated parents sample
Demographic characteristics
Adolescent Sample
N = 10% (n)
Caregiver Sample N = 10% (n)
Previously incarcerated parents sample N = 6% (n)
Gender
   
 Female
90.0% (9)
20% (10)
33.3% (2)
 Male
10.0% (1)
0
66.6% (4)
Race
   
 Black or African American (AA)
40.0% (4)
60.0% (6)
50.0% (3)
 White
30.0% (3)
30.0% (3)
33.3% (2)
 Black or AA and white
20.0% (2)
 American Indian or Native Alaskan (AI or NA)
0
16.7% (1)
  Other
10.0%(1)
 
  AI or NA and other
1.0% (1)
Ethnicity
   
 Hispanic or Latino
0
10.0% (1)
Age
   
 Average (years) and range
14.7 years (12–16)
47.6 years (28–67)
51.5 years (46–60)
  1213 years
30.0% (3)
  1415 years
20.0% (2)
  1617 years
50.0% (5)
  2534 years
20.0% (2)
  3544 years
20.0% (2)
  4554 years
30.0% (3)
66.6% (4)
  > 5564 years
30.0% (3)
33.3% (2)
Living situation
   
 Mother and/or father
80.0% (8)
 Legal guardian/caregiver
20.0% (2)
Type of school
  
 Charter or private
40.0% (4)
 Public
60.0% (6)
Gender of parent incarcerated
   
 Mother
20.0% (2)
10.0% (1)
 Father
40.0% (4)
60.0% (6)
 Both
40.0% (4)
30.0% (3)
Current grade or highest level of school
   
 6th–7th grade
30.0% (3)
 8th–9th grade
10.0% (1)
 10th–11th grade
60.0% (6)
 Some high school
16.7% (1)
 High school diploma or GED
10.0% (1)
16.7% (1)
 Some college or 2 year degree
60.0% (6)
50% (3)
 4 year college degree or higher
30.0% (3)
33.3% (2)
Annual household income
  
 Less than $15,000
10.0% (1)
33.3% (2)
 $15,000 to $24,999
10.0% (1)
 $25,000 to $49,999
50.0% (5)
33.3% (2)
 $50,000 to $74,999
10.0% (1)
 $75,000 to $99,999
 $100,000 or more
16.7% (1)
 Prefer not to answer
 
20.0% (2)
16.7% (1)
Incarceration contexta
   
Total times/incarcerations
   
 Mother
  
Self-Incarceration History
  1–2 incarcerations
10.0% (1)
33.3% (2)
  3–5 incarcerations
10.0% (1)
  > 5 incarcerations
10.0% (1)
 Father
   
  1–2 incarcerations
30.0% (3)
20.0% (2)
66.6% (4)
  3–5 incarcerations
20.0% (2)
  > 5 incarcerations
10.0% (1)
20.0% (2)
 Both mother and father
   
  1–2 incarcerations
10.0% (1)
  3–5 incarcerations
10.0% (1)
  > 5 incarcerations
30.0% (3)
20.0% (2)
Total sentence length
   
 Mother
   
  3 months- 1 year
10.0% (1)
  1–4 years
10.0% (1)
  5–8 years
33.3% (2)
  > 9 years
10.0% (1)
 Father
   
  3 months- 1 year
20.0% (2)
10.0% (1)
  1–4 years
10.0% (1)
16.7% (1)
  5–8 years
20.0% (2)
  > 9 years
20.0% (2)
20.0% (2)
33.3% (2)
 Prefer not to answer
  
16.7% (1)
 Both mother and father
  
  3 months- 1 year
  1–4 years
  5–8 years
10.0% (1)
  > 9 years
40.0% (4)
20.0% (2)
aNumbers were based on participants who responded. Incarceration included both exposures to jail and prison, but these were not distinguished as 6/10 youth use “jail/prison” interchangeably
Table 2
Summary of findings
Themes
Family experiences
Family ideas
Cost of parental incarceration
• Distance and lack of reliable transportation to facilities
• Financial assistance and emotional support services for children and caregivers
• Financial difficulty to maintain connection
• Little emotional support in the jail/prison facility
Barriers to connection
• Negative staff interactions and correctional intake processes (metal detectors, rules and regulations)
• Family friendly visitation spaces
• Reduction in costs to maintain connection
• Physical barriers (plexiglass, table in between family and parent)
• Poor quality of phone calls
• Better treatment from correctional officers
Family suggestions
• Age and developmentally appropriate communication guides on how to discuss a parent’s incarceration (for providers and for families)
• Reduce stigma to help foster honest and transparent communication with child
• Community based support (programs to visit parent while incarcerated, mental health supports for caregiver and child, support for families not to feel alone)
• Longer phone calls, video visiting

Costs of Parental Incarceration

Emotional and financial costs

During incarceration, families shared the stress and strain of transitioning to a parent’s imprisonment. When a parent was removed from the home, non-incarcerated parent or a family member stepped in to assume the incarcerated parent’s role and responsibilities. Incarceration was not planned; therefore, caregivers abruptly changed their lifestyle, and disregarded their own issues to address the child’s needs. One caregiver expressed her struggles, “It was a struggle to go from my single-living lifestyle to now being responsible and meeting [the child’s] needs. Because they have needs, those little people, and they have energy to burn, and they are on the go.”
Caregivers had to navigate finding necessary resources to support their household. Basic needs such as food, housing, and transportation posed difficulties for many caregivers to support an additional person in their household. Recently released parents shared their worries about their children being adequately fed, their safety, their school attendance, and their overall well-being. A recently released parent shared their worries, “… I worried about [the children] all the time, I worried for their safety. I worried if they were going to school. I worried if they were being fed. If they had the basics, you know, that they weren’t going hungry…”
Caregivers reported how problematic it was to find supportive and transparent resources such as applying for government assistance, obtaining guardianship to enroll the child(ren) into school or doctor appointments and maintaining a connection with an incarcerated parent. Their employer’s lack of understanding and lack of family-centered policies (particularly for families affected by parental incarceration) to protect their jobs to attend to caregiving caused significant stress for family members. One caregiver shared what would have helped and the support that was needed, “Being able to make the process less [stressful] to get custody of your grandkids, to get guardianship of the grandkids. To have something in place at work. So, maybe some kind of benefit for grandparents or caregivers who take on kids, raising kids who have been through traumatic, whatever kind of [trauma] such as parents incarcerated, that gives you benefit that kicks in when you have to miss work, that you’re not going unpaid. Youths and recently released parents shared concerns about the caregiver being able to provide adequate support. Youths were aware of the burden their caregivers shouldered, especially those who lived in a two-parent household, and now the non-incarcerated parent (not the primary earner) having to support their entire family alone.

Costs of visiting and connection

The burden of staying connected via phone calls, coordinating transportation, and the necessary materials for visiting, hindered many families from having a regular connection with the incarcerated parent. Recently released parents stated free phone calls, financial support, therapy, and access to video visitation while incarcerated would have been most helpful to reduce barriers of connecting with their family. Visiting experiences often depended on transportation resources and the caregiver’s willingness to facilitate this experience, posing challenges to parent-child connection. Many youths shared how seeing their incarcerated parent was contingent on whether their non-incarcerated parent or caregiver wanted to see the incarcerated parent.
Recently released parents stated that their families traveled long distances to visit them and discussed the importance of being detained in a facility that was closer to their family. Youths and caregivers reported needing to rent a car because their own was unreliable, paying for long bus rides, and even depending on others to provide transportation. An adolescent shared the barriers and the experience of going to see their incarcerated parent including the distance, lack of transportation and long bus rides: “[When visiting], my dad it was like going to visit was hard because the places are so far away, and we didn’t have a car, so we had to take the bus. It was the big busses that you take, and it was like in these seats, and we were on them for hours which sucked.”
A caregiver who had their own incarceration experience during their child’s life (released for over a year while the other parent is currently incarcerated) shared experiences of not being able to take their child to visit the other parent because of their lack of community support. Their own incarceration experience prevented them from being able to take the child (due to the prison institutional eligibility requirements) and felt like there should be an organization to help facilitate visiting. Families experienced a tremendous amount of stress attempting to stay connected and sustain healthy relationships. While youths yearned for a connection with their parents, caregivers were concerned with the detrimental effect of parental incarceration on the child even though, most adult participants (four caregivers and five recently released parents) thought it was important for them to continue or build a relationship.

Barriers to Connection

Negative interactions with staff and correctional processes

Aside from the necessary resources and time to set up a visit, families had to consider visitation requirements (e.g., application, reservation). Caregivers and youths shared troubling information about the visiting processes that induced negative emotional responses in children. While most youths desired a better connection with their incarcerated parent(s), the visiting experience posed challenges for families. Some of these challenges included going through metal detectors, waiting in long lines, not knowing the correct dress code, and the inspecting of personal items such as diaper bags, bottles, and vehicles, if needed. Youths and caregivers expressed their hesitancy, concerns, and experiences visiting the incarcerated parent in jail or prison.
All participants shared the need for prison and jail facilities to improve the visiting experience with more positive interactions with correctional officers. Caregivers shared requests of not being ‘treated like a criminal’ when walking through to the facility’s visitation area and better attitude from correction officers as ways to improve the visiting experience. Caregivers shared how they had to be extra cautious to not to say anything or react negatively to correctional officers to keep their incarcerated loved one from suffering the consequences. One caregiver shared their fear of consequences if their family was not on their best behavior during the visit, “I had to be the adult and not have an attitude when I went, and not say nothing negative when I went, make sure I wasn’t doing anything to make it harder for him [incarcerated son] in there.”
The negative experiences with correctional officers dictated how families interacted with their loved one(s) and raised safety concerns about the detained parent’s well-being. Youths also shared their disdain for the media portrayal and how this depiction contributes to their turmoil in worrying about how their parent was being treated. “…I [have] seen videos of inmates getting beat up by guards, people turning their body cams off. And then everything that goes on in a criminal facility! People stabbing people and fighting, riots and everything …that’s scary to worry about your family member regardless how far away they [are].”

Physical barriers and activity restrictions

Visiting policies about physical touch and space between the incarcerated parent and their family also hindered family connection. A recently released parent recalled their visiting experience through plexiglass,
…that was the most devastating experience of my life, having my child on the opposite side of a window and not being able to touch her as tears were rolling down her face…I would never let my children come inside and stand on the opposite side of the plexiglass… And not be able to hug them when they’re crying.”
Families who visited facilities desired child-friendly spaces, but many did not have them. Still, those with designated areas for children needed improvements to allow children to feel more comfortable. All participants agreed more physical contact and activities to do with an incarcerated parent is necessary for positive interaction. A caregiver recommended activities parents and youths can do while visiting to increase connection such as arts and crafts so the child could have something to remember their parent by. A caregiver gave their perspective,
“I think having better, having more activities that are centered around children. I go to several facilities where their visitation rooms have some child friendly areas which are great…to be able to really have that interaction with their children freely, I think would be very important.”
Families who could not visit consistently, had young children, or wanted more interaction, preferred to visit via video so that children could talk to and see their parent. Youths would like to have video visits to include or show their parent things that are going on in their life (e.g., drawings and special events). One recently released parent specifically noted video calls as helpful in maintaining family connections,
I think the video conferencing is really good. I think taking the kids to see their [incarcerated] parent(s) once a month or once every other month or even once every three months is enough if you do the Skype visiting because the Skype visiting doesn’t really impede on everybody, like the cost of visiting and all that kind of stuff. Then you can be at your child’s birthday party for the Skype. You [as the incarcerated parent] could be present through videoconferencing for any number of things…”

Quality of phone calls

Non-video phone calls posed a financial barrier, had severe time limits, and poor cellular connections as impediments to family connection. All participants shared how the phone connections would break up and could not be heard well due to the noise in the background. A recently released parent shared how many phones did not work properly, had static and low audio volume and hindered parents from effectively communicating with their families.
The nuances and interruptions during phone calls were especially difficult for youth. Some adolescents shared their experience with phone calls with their parents,
“…It just like it’s still is depressing [talking on the phone with an incarcerated parent] because it’s just like even now talking to you I am sitting here thinking it’s going to be, like ‘1min remaining’, like it’s just so…It’s sad for real because you would sit and think you could talk forever, and there the phone go trying to hang you up.”

Family Suggestions

Age and developmentally appropriate communication resource guides

Caregivers expressed the need for developmentally and age-appropriate ways to discuss the parent’s incarceration with their children. Caregivers also desired communication guides and resources about best practices on explaining appropriately to younger children that their parent was incarcerated, how to assuage a parent’s absence and the child’s inability to communicate constantly with their parent. A caregiver expressed what kind of support was needed,
“…The only thing I can think of is more or less determining what is appropriate… in terms of explaining the situation with [his] parent’s incarceration… [So], I didn’t know I’m just feeling this out in the dark just trying to go with my gut told me or what I would want… You know, if I was a child, what would I want, but that’s not always the best thing for kids. You know, someone to guide me…What is helpful for children and what is helpful for their parents, you know, in terms of communication, and I guess primarily, it would be that because that’s what you are really trying to manage is some kind of relationship. What is the best thing to do [when you have] limited contact?
Many caregivers and recently released parents felt inadequate or not sure how to sustain a connection. A recently released parent shared, “There’s nobody in the prison system who can sit down and say okay now you should be reaching out to your kids every week, okay, now you should be asking your kids about homework, okay, you should be telling your kids this… Nobody. That job does not exist in the prison system.” Many youths struggle to connect with their parent over the phone and vice versa because of limited education/resources on best engaging with your child during incarceration.
A recently released parent shared the need for a person in their facility to help them with parenting skills to interact with their child(ren). When asked what advice they would give to their peers who also had an incarcerated parent (s), youths advised to write notes to help facilitate conversations and to connect with them, have video visitation with parent, if possible, draw pictures to show their parent, and not be afraid to express how they are feeling. Youth suggested to appreciate every moment with their parent because they cannot anticipate what will happen next or what will happen to the incarcerated parent.

Community-based supports

General support (financial and emotional) and supportive services would help navigate the challenges of supporting a child with an incarcerated parent from employers, schools, and healthcare systems to keep everyone connected. Youths relayed their desire for flexibility and understanding from teachers and schools to support their need for connectedness better with their incarcerated parent. Youths shared the need for schools to understand when they need to call or receive a call from their parent and have excused absences when visiting a parent.
“So, I gave my [incarcerated] mom my number [and] she had all my numbers so she would call me ….if I’m in school and I tell [the teachers] like, “my mom’s calling me from jail” [then] I should be able to accept that call. Or if I have to get picked up early for a visit it’s not an “unexcused absence” [but it should be] excused, it’s for sure a [valid] reason why.”
Families expressed the need for community resources and a support person to help improve their health and overall well-being, in addition for more organizations to develop specific programs for families affected by parental incarceration Counseling was specifically mentioned by families to help youth address their parent’s incarceration or have more interaction with other children to have someone who they feel comfortable discussing this information with to ensure they were doing the right thing. Caregivers also commented on engaging with organizations that hosted support groups and provided resources for families during the holidays that was very beneficial. Families mentioned the value in participating in programs through community organizations that allowed for them to engage in activities with their incarcerated parent,
-“Yes, a group called Loved Ones of Prisoners (LOOP) were very instrumental. They have a support group in the community that I am part of and its other people who have a loved one who is incarcerated and we kind of share where we are at, how we are feeling, supportive of each other, there was times at like Christmas [that the organization would] provide somethings for the kids, gift cards for mom to be able to shop for the kids and be able to get some of things that both mom and dad wants to get for the kids…”
-“My experiences was fun, like in the Bonds Beyond Bars you can… do activities and meet other inmates and meet other girls and stuff … because it’s a girl scout [group], you … do activities, and get badges. It was just fun seeing my mom, …getting to know her…”
-“…in the last year before I got out, they had some Christian groups that were able to come in and have the fathers make contact with their children, and you could interact, you could have a day. It was kind of like a reconnection time, and that was really positive…”

Stigma reduction

Families expressed the need for a communal effort in ways to reduce stigma for family members. Participants shared feelings of shame, embarrassment, and fear of judgment from others about parental incarceration. A caregiver expressed that,
The public needs to know that it’s not the children’s fault, that if they want to break the cycle, whatever the cycle is, whether it’s crime, drug abuse, whatever, then they [have] to be the village. It takes a village to raise a kid.”
When asked what adolescent experiences were like during incarceration, one adolescent confessed their dishonesty about their parent’s whereabouts and shameful feelings when asked about their parent,
I would have to lie to people; like they would ask me why my parent, ohh like, why my mom is white [caregiver], or why haven’t they met my [incarcerated parent] mom, and would just lie to them. Like, [I would say] she lives in California, and she only come around on the weekend; or something like that. I didn’t really want to tell them the honest truth because I was so young, I was scared of being judged…”
All three sub-sample groups expressed mixed feelings regarding sharing information with a doctor, teacher, or healthcare professional. Stigma played a role in what and how information was communicated to adolescents, along with hesitancy of sharing information with schools, doctors, and community members. A few caregivers thought schools should know about a child having an incarcerated parent to help teachers understand the child’s behaviors and to not treat them different than other kids or label them as a bad child. Also, informing employers would help them be more understanding of caregivers who need time off to go to visits or any other reasons pertaining to the child’s needs. One shared,
“For the schools, it’s important for them to know that their parent is absent because they’re incarcerated, and they’re not dealing with it well. So, this has happened because [of] their attitude, their outbursts, their lack [of respect] for authority, or whatever it is that they’re dealing with because of this parent being incarcerated. I’m concerned, and I want to make sure we have the things in place to help this child get through school successfully and not be treated differently, because not to be labeled a problem child because really, they’re a good child. They’ve just been through a lot, and they need some help.”

Discussion

Our study findings highlighted the significant costs (emotional and financial), fears, worries, and barriers to communication (e.g. negative staff interactions, physical barriers) that families experience when a parent is incarcerated. Families suggested and desired open, honest, and developmentally appropriate communication guides for themselves and providers on how to discuss a parent’s incarceration - in line with incarceration-sensitive intervention recommendations (Phillips & O’Brien, 2012) and recent qualitative literature raising voices of children of incarcerated parents (Benninger et al., 2023). Resources such as Sesame Street’s Little Children Big Challenges: Incarceration can also help provide this age-appropriate information (Shlafer et al., 2017). Our findings further revealed caregivers’ struggle to obtain the appropriate economic and social support resources to care for a child with an incarcerated parent. While the establishment of pediatric care guidelines were recently created for the care of children of incarcerated parents (Martoma et al., 2022), few evidence based practices exist primarily due to a lack of program evaluation on families affected by parental incarceration. This may be due to inadequate scientific investigation as only 24 studies have ever been funded at the National Institute of Health that relate to children of incarcerated parents since 1985 (Boch et al., 2023). In this study, caregivers disclosed confusion and difficulty retrieving appropriate medical and educational consents to take children to their doctor’s appointments and school. Families recommended better social service connections and public assistance to help with these processes throughout incarceration and to reduce barriers to visiting. Support from schools and the community has been found to be relevant to increase resilience in children and reduce negative outcomes (Johnson & Arditti 2023).

Correctional Facility Considerations

During the incarceration phase, families articulated the need to reduce the economic barriers (i.e., transportation/gas and food during visiting) and the challenges associated with keeping quality contact with the incarcerated parent. Critical factors for fostering positive relationships among families included improving phone call quality and length, video conferencing, and decreasing costs for caregivers. Families also discussed the benefits and need for institutions to have more family-friendly spaces, allowing children to be held or hug their incarcerated parent while visiting, especially for younger children. Incarcerated mothers have previously acknowledged the benefits of privacy, extended visiting hours, physical contact, and peer support in maintaining good relationships with their children (Schubert et al., 2016). Longer visiting hours and extended visiting times, such as evening hours, should be considered for employed people and for children in school. Standard ways to communicate across facilities could be initiated so that families have equal access to different forms of communication, including the availability of video visiting.
The National Institute of Corrections has previously reported that video visits can help reduce parental stress, improve parent-child relationships, facilitate reentry planning, reduce recidivism, and decrease overall visiting costs to prisons/jails (National Institute of Corrections, 2014). Clear communication about visiting rules should be made available to families, and better correctional officer treatment could make the process less intimidating and more beneficial (Martin & Wells, 2015). Resource/tip sheets are desired and need to be more accessible to families and the incarcerated parent, so everyone knows what to expect before, during, and after visiting to have a positive and beneficial experience (National Institute of Corrections, n.d.). Research has shown how increased family contact during incarceration improves mental health outcomes and reduces recidivism for adults returning to the community (Folk et al., 2019).

Supportive Program Considerations

General mentoring programs like Big Brothers/Big Sisters and specifically for children of incarcerated parents such as Amachi, could play a positive role in buffering the stress and worries many of our participants shared. Although research is sparse on the effectiveness of mentoring for children of incarcerated parents, a long-term relationship with a stable and caring adult is known to benefit child development (Kjellstrand, 2017). More specifically, research suggests that mentoring programs can mitigate behavioral issues and foster relationship development, but the effectiveness of mentoring depends upon the youth’s needs, specific program goals, specialized mentor training, mentoring frequency and consistency, parent engagement and funding (Jarjoura et al. 2013; Shlafer et al., 2009; Stump et al., 2018). Parenting education programs during incarceration are also an important inclusion for jail and prison facilities. According to sample of 42 incarcerated mothers, parental education programs should include the full developmental lifespan including newborn through adolescence and young adult, consider all types of incarcerated mothers (even those who lost custody), led by a trained professional, and include a focus on reentry and reunification (Dworsky et al. 2020). Support groups are also important for caregivers to be able to be surrounded by others with similar experiences and help navigate caring for a child(ren) with an incarcerated parent (Nesmith, 2011).

Policy Considerations

Youths expressed the need for emotional support, flexibility, and understanding from teachers, doctors, community members, and their organizations. To do this, the National Academies of Sciences and Medicine recommend fostering greater collaborations among the child welfare, justice, education, and health systems –from which children of incarcerated parents would likely benefit (National Academies of Sciences & Medicine, 2019). This requires a shift, as historically, child welfare, health, and criminal justice policies are created in silo (Phillips & Bloom, 1998). Other literature investigating youth service provider experiences corroborate these family-voiced considerations and confirm the vital need for systems to identify and assist children with incarcerated parents (Axelson et al., 2020; Phillips & O’Brien, 2012). Policy makers should also recognize that incarceration is heavily influenced by systematic issues and root causes of crime (e.g., poverty, segregation, racism, and mental illness) in order to understand and intervene on the needs of children of incarcerated parents and their families (Benninger et al., 2023; Lee & Wildeman, 2021). Policies should be cross-sector, promoting practices that facilitate a healthy and family-centered transition for children of incarcerated parents starting in their community upon arrest, sentencing, during incarceration and upon reentry. Our work elucidates the needs of families who are affected by parental incarceration by highlighting caregivers, children, and the parent experiences.

Limitations

Our study had several limitations. The small sample size does not allow these findings to be generalizable, but it provides context from the perspective of families separated by incarceration. We acknowledge that each group size was small, and that the independence of the groups is hard to discern – however, this article still provides a novel snapshot of experiences for providers to reflect upon when working with families affected by parental incarceration. Due to the overlap in responses, we created broad themes to cover jail or prison settings. In addition, our convenience-based methodology and reliance on community organizations to disseminate our flyers precluded us from reaching families who did not have access to those resources, school/organization listservs, and/or families that may have even more significant social needs. We also acknowledge that we did not differentiate between jail and prison during recruitment, and additional research is needed to understand contextual differences between these types of detainments. In addition, 6/10 youth indicated that they use “jail/prison” interchangeably. Although there are differences between jail and prison that were not mentioned, issues expressed by families are common across both facility types and can be addressed through community efforts and policies to standardize solutions. Our study did not focus on unique differences within a family unit that could have illuminated different perspectives, future research could examine intrafamily differences, but we chose to analyze by age and primary relationship (e.g. youth, caregiver, recently released parent). Other considerations such as gender of the parent, duration of incarceration and frequency of incarceration could be specific areas to focus on qualitatively in the future. Lastly, recruitment and data collection occurred during March–August of 2020 during the beginning of the COVID19 pandemic, and the associated household stress may have impeded memory recall. Despite these limitations, our findings aim to provide some context and understanding about family experiences during incarceration.

Positionality Statement

We acknowledge the power and privilege of each research team member to conduct a study on families affected by incarceration. The research staff based in two prominent Midwestern pediatric hospital research institutes aim to improve children’s health and well-being. We also acknowledge that stereotypes and stigmas significantly govern perceptions, ideas, and understandings of incarceration. While all the authors have experienced familial incarceration in their lifetime (e.g., sibling, child, cousin, aunt, grandparent, who served time in prison and/or jail, etc.), only two have personally experienced an incarcerated parent.

Conclusion

Our study provides insight into the experiences of families during the incarceration phase. Families reported the financial, emotional, and visiting cost of parental incarceration, barriers to connection and suggestions for support. Household incarceration is overwhelmingly common, and children of incarcerated parents need support during incarceration to deal with the new roles and responsibilities of their caregivers. Practical strategies to maintain familial connection during incarceration may improve the health of children and their caregivers and facilitate a smoother transition for the parent’s return home and into their community. When healthcare professionals, teachers, and community members who encounter children with incarcerated parents attempt to understand their experiences, needs, and barriers, these children feel supported during their parent’s incarceration.

Acknowledgements

We would like to acknowledge the families who participated in the study for their time and insight and those that assisted in data transcription.

Funding

This study was funded by an internal award supported by the Office of Trainee Affairs of Nationwide Children’s Hospital/The Ohio State University (Boch, PI).

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare no competing interests.
Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article’s Creative Commons license, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article’s Creative Commons license and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this license, visit http://​creativecommons.​org/​licenses/​by/​4.​0/​.
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Metagegevens
Titel
“Devastating…Having My Child on the Opposite Side of a Window”: Family Visiting Experiences and Considerations for Supporting Youths with Incarcerated Parents
Auteurs
Leslie N. Jones
Elizabeth G. Keller
Kelly J. Kelleher
Deena J. Chisolm
Samantha J. Boch
Publicatiedatum
08-01-2024
Uitgeverij
Springer US
Gepubliceerd in
Journal of Child and Family Studies / Uitgave 1/2024
Print ISSN: 1062-1024
Elektronisch ISSN: 1573-2843
DOI
https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-023-02769-9

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