Official reprint from UpToDate®
www.uptodate.com ©2017 UpToDate, Inc. and/or its affiliates. All Rights Reserved.

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 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 has been reflected in increasing numbers of affected children, an increase of 80 percent between 1991 and 2007 [1]. In the 2011-2012 National Survey of Children’s Health, 6.9 percent of children had experienced the incarceration of a custodial parent [4].

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 [5,6]. 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

To continue reading this article, you must log in with your personal, hospital, or group practice subscription. For more information on subscription options, click below on the option that best describes you:

Subscribers log in here

Literature review current through: Nov 2017. | This topic last updated: Jul 27, 2017.
The content on the UpToDate website is not intended nor recommended as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your own physician or other qualified health care professional regarding any medical questions or conditions. The use of this website is governed by the UpToDate Terms of Use ©2017 UpToDate, Inc.
  1. Glaze LE, Maruschak LM. Parents in prison and their minor children. Bureau of Justice Statistics special report, Publication no. NCJ-222984, US Department of Justice; Washington, DC, 2008.
  2. Kemper KJ, Rivara FP. Parents in jail. Pediatrics 1993; 92:261.
  3. Harrison PM, Beck AJ. Prison and jail inmates at midyear 2004. Bureau of Justice Statistics special report, Publication no. NCJ-208801, US Department of Justice; Washington, DC, 2005.
  4. Turney K. Unmet Health Care Needs among Children Exposed to Parental Incarceration. Matern Child Health J 2017; 21:1194.
  5. Seymour C. Children with parents in prison: child welfare policy, program, and practice issues. Child Welfare 1998; 77:469.
  6. Dannerbeck AM. Differences in parenting attributes, experiences, and behaviors of delinquent youth with and without a parental incarceration history. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice 2005; 3:199.
  7. Adalist-Estrin A. Common stress points. Children of Prisoners Library. Family and Corrections Network 2003. Available at: www.fcnetwork.org/cpl/CPL303-CommonStressPoints.pdf (Accessed on April 18, 2012).
  8. Johnston D. The care and placement of prisoners' children. In: Children of Incarcerated Parents, Gabel K, Johnston DJ (Eds), Lexington, New York 1995. p.105.
  9. Mumola CJ. Incarcerated parents and their children. US Department of Justice; Bureau of Justice Statistics, Washington, DC, 2000.
  10. James DJ. Profile of Jail Inmates 2002. Publication no. NCJ 201932, US Department of Justice; Bureau of Justice Statistics, Washington, DC, 2004.
  11. Greene S, Haney C, Hurtado A. Cycles of pain: risk factors in the lives of incarcerated mothers and their children. Prison J 2000; 80:3.
  12. Hanlon TE, O'Grady KE, Bennett-Sears T, Callaman JM. Incarcerated drug-abusing mothers: their characteristics and vulnerability. Am J Drug Alcohol Abuse 2005; 31:59.
  13. Phillips SD, Burns BJ, Wagner HW, et al. Parental incarceration among adolescents receiving mental health services. J Child Fam Stud 2002; 11:385.
  14. Kinner SA, Alati R, Najman JM, Williams GM. Do paternal arrest and imprisonment lead to child behaviour problems and substance use? A longitudinal analysis. J Child Psychol Psychiatry 2007; 48:1148.
  15. Dallaire DH, Zeman JL, Thrash TM. Children's experiences of maternal incarceration-specific risks: predictions to psychological maladaptation. J Clin Child Adolesc Psychol 2015; 44:109.
  16. Correctional Populations in the United States. US Department of Justice; Bureau of Justice Statistics, Washington, DC, 1996.
  17. Black D. Children of parents in prison. Arch Dis Child 1992; 67:967.
  18. Parke RD, Clarke-Stewart KA. Effects of parental incarceration on young children. The Urban Institute, US Department of Health and Human Services, December 2001. Available at: www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/410627_ParentalIncarceration.pdf (Accessed on April 18, 2012).
  19. Poehlmann J. Representations of attachment relationships in children of incarcerated mothers. Child Dev 2005; 76:679.
  20. Freudenberg N, Daniels J, Crum M, et al. Coming home from jail: the social and health consequences of community reentry for women, male adolescents, and their families and communities. Am J Public Health 2005; 95:1725.
  21. Phillips SD, Burns BJ, Wagner HR, Barth RP. Parental arrest and children involved with child welfare services agencies. Am J Orthopsychiatry 2004; 74:174.
  22. Dallaire D. Incarcerated mothers and fathers. Family Relations 2007; 56:440.
  23. Fritsch TA, Burkhead JD. Behavioral reactions of children to parental absence due to imprisonment. Fam Relat 1981; 30:83.
  24. Lowenstein A. Temporary single parenthood: The case of prisoner's families. Fam Relat 1986; 36:79.
  25. Gabel S. Behavioral problems in sons of incarcerated or otherwise absent fathers: the issue of separation. Fam Process 1992; 31:303.
  26. Gabel S, Shindledecker R. Characteristics of children whose parents have been incarcerated. Hosp Community Psychiatry 1993; 44:656.
  27. Wilbur MB, Marani JE, Appugliese D, et al. Socioemotional effects of fathers' incarceration on low-income, urban, school-aged children. Pediatrics 2007; 120:e678.
  28. Hagen KA, Myers BJ. The effect of secrecy and social support on behavioral problems in children of incarcerated women. J Child Fam Studies 2003; 12:229.
  29. Hagen KA, Myers BJ, Mackintosh VH. Hope, social support, and behavioral problems in at-risk children. Am J Orthopsychiatry 2005; 75:211.
  30. Poehlmann J. Children's family environments and intellectual outcomes during maternal incarceration. J Marriage Fam 2005; 67:1275.
  31. Leslie LK, Gordon JN, Ganger W, Gist K. Developmental delay in young children in child welfare by initial placement type. Infant Mental Health J 2002; 23:496.
  32. Murray J, Farrington DP. Parental imprisonment: effects on boys' antisocial behaviour and delinquency through the life-course. J Child Psychol Psychiatry 2005; 46:1269.
  33. Murray J, Carl-Gunner J, Farrington D. Crime in adult offspring of prisoners: A cross national comparison of two longitudinal samples. Crim Justice Behav 2007; 34:133.
  34. Farrington DP. The Twelfth Jack Tizard Memorial Lecture. The development of offending and antisocial behaviour from childhood: key findings from the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development. J Child Psychol Psychiatry 1995; 36:929.
  35. Farrington DP, Coid JW, Murray J. Family factors in the intergenerational transmission of offending. Crim Behav Ment Health 2009; 19:109.
  36. Aaron L, Dallaire DH. Parental incarceration and multiple risk experiences: effects on family dynamics and children's delinquency. J Youth Adolesc 2010; 39:1471.
  37. Cuffe SP, McKeown RE, Addy CL, Garrison CZ. Family and psychosocial risk factors in a longitudinal epidemiological study of adolescents. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 2005; 44:121.
  38. Dube SR, Anda RF, Felitti VJ, et al. Childhood abuse, household dysfunction, and the risk of attempted suicide throughout the life span: findings from the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. JAMA 2001; 286:3089.
  39. Roettger ME, Swisher RR, Kuhl DC, Chavez J. Paternal incarceration and trajectories of marijuana and other illegal drug use from adolescence into young adulthood: evidence from longitudinal panels of males and females in the United States. Addiction 2011; 106:121.
  40. Lee RD, Fang X, Luo F. The impact of parental incarceration on the physical and mental health of young adults. Pediatrics 2013; 131:e1188.
  41. Roettger ME, Boardman JD. Parental incarceration and gender-based risks for increased body mass index: evidence from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health in the United States. Am J Epidemiol 2012; 175:636.
  42. Mitchell C, McLanahan S, Schneper L, et al. Father Loss and Child Telomere Length. Pediatrics 2017; 140.
  43. Hames CC, Pedreira D. Children with parents in prison: Disenfranchised grievers who benefit from bibliotherapy. Illness, Crisis, & Loss 2003; 11:377.