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Developmental and behavioral implications for children of incarcerated parents

Stephanie L Blenner, MD
Section Editor
Marilyn Augustyn, MD
Deputy Editor
Mary M Torchia, MD


With stricter sentencing guidelines and rising incarceration rates in the United States, parental incarceration is increasingly common. The behavior and development of children with an incarcerated parent may be influenced by stressors that occur before, during, and after sentencing of the parent. Pediatric providers have a unique opportunity to identify and support children and families affected by a parent's incarceration.


According to a Department of Justice report from the year 2007, 2.3 percent of children in the United States (nearly 1.7 million children) had a parent incarcerated in state or federal prison [1]. In addition, at least 1 in 50 children had a parent incarcerated in local or county facilities [2].

Between 1995 and 2004, the inmate population grew by an average of 3.5 percent annually to approximately 2.1 million prisoners, corresponding to an incarceration rate of 726 per 100,000 residents [3]. Because a majority of prisoners (52 percent of state and 63 percent of federal prisoners) are parents, growth in the incarcerated population is reflected in increasing numbers of affected children, an increase of 80 percent between 1991 and 2007 [1].

Longitudinal data regarding the numbers of children affected by parental incarceration are limited. Despite the magnitude of this issue, there is no centralized system for tracking children whose parents become involved with the criminal justice system [4,5]. National estimates are gathered through periodic Department of Justice surveys. These interview-based surveys use discrete jail or federal/state inmate samples and do not generate total population estimates for all levels of system involvement. Survey statistics rely solely on inmate report and may underestimate the number of affected children for several reasons, including:

Inmate misinterpretation of questions


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Literature review current through: Sep 2016. | This topic last updated: Sep 14, 2015.
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