Vol. 20, No. 1 • November 2015

When a Parent is Incarcerated: A Primer for Social Workers and Foster Parents

by Melissa Radcliff

"I guess some caseworkers assume your mom is a bad person when they hear she's incarcerated. But they should keep an open mind and remember that every child has only one mother, one father. The ones we're given are special to us, even if we can't live with them, even if they're not perfect."
--Youth speaker with Foster Change for Children

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Many children of incarcerated parents love their parents. They may not like them on certain days (welcome to the child-parent relationship!) but they love them and want to figure out what their relationship looks and feels like now that their parent is away.

At Our Children's Place, the agency where I'm the director, we've hosted "Parent Day" at three men's prison facilities. This reinforced for me how important it is to children to maintain their relationships with their parents, even if those parents are incarcerated. We, the adults--the big people in a child's life--can help them do this.

Even when a decision has been made that it's not safe for the child to have a relationship with his parent, it's still important for a person trusted by the child to be able to explain this to the child, answer questions, and provide support. Out of sight is NOT out of mind. Our goal is not to "make" the child forget.

At Our Children's Place we remind folks that we don't all need to be therapists or criminal justice professionals. But we never know who a child will talk to about their parent, so we believe it's important for all the adults in a child's life to have at least a basic understanding of the traumas endured by the children separated from their parents. What a wonderful way to reduce possible shame, stigma, and a sense of isolation if you're the adult a child can talk to!

The words we use matter. Instead of inmate, convict, or offender, consider using mother, father, or parent. Listen to how a child refers to his or her parent and use that as your cue.

Know the difference between jail (local county facility usually run by the sheriff) and prison (state facility run by the North Carolina Department of Public Safety or a federal facility run by the Bureau of Prisons).

The words we use may stem from our feelings about people who are or have been involved in the criminal justice system. Acknowledging those feelings is important as you support the child and interact with the parent. Never badmouth the parent; this can confuse the child emotionally. You may not agree with the parent's choices and actions, but he or she is still the child's parent.

Visiting in Jail or Prison
Ask how the DSS handles visitation for children with incarcerated parents. Will you be part of that? What are the expectations? Think about preparing a child for a visit (see Resources) and debriefing afterwards. Some people think visitation in a jail or prison setting isn't good for a child. If the child has a therapist or counselor, talk with that person. If it's decided that right now visitation isn't in the child's best interest (vs. not convenient for the adults), ask if there's a plan to re-evaluate in the future. Children may also change their minds about visiting; a younger child might be excited about seeing her mother while an older child might be bored with a prison visit after having gone on several. A child should never be forced to visit.

A visit can reassure a child that the parent is still around, is OK, and still loves the child. Children who don't have the opportunity to visit may base their vision of prison on what they see on TV, at the movies, or online.

It's always wise to contact a facility right before a visit to confirm rules (such as contact visit vs. behind the glass), times, procedures (must a child go through a metal detector?), and any other important information and to share that with a child in an age-appropriate manner, which may include role-playing.

Other Ways to Communicate
Visiting isn't the only way to communicate. Phone calls to incarcerated parents can be expensive, are usually time-limited, and may be difficult for younger children. Consider talking with a child ahead to time to plan for the call: what time of day it might come, what a child wants to share with a parent, what to do if the child doesn't feel like talking, etc.

Letter writing may seem outdated, but there's something to be said for mail that arrives addressed to you, that was written by a person who loves you, and that you can read over and over. Check on limitations set by DSS and the prison. Can a parent write directly to a child, or must it go through a third person? Do prison staff read all letters?

Younger children may want to send drawings or other artwork. They could start a drawing or a story, then ask their parent to add to it and send it back. Again, check on what a parent can receive. A child may want to create a special box or scrapbook in which to store mail received from parents.

Be Creative
Think about ways to engage an incarcerated parent in their child's life. How about sending a copy of a child's report card or certificate of achievement? Or sending a newspaper article about a child's basketball game or school play? Is it possible to have a parent-teacher conference via conference call?

These require extra time and effort, but can make a real difference in the child's relationship with the parent.

Recognizing Trauma
Having a parent in jail or prison often is a source of trauma for children. Traumas associated with parental incarceration can include witnessing a parent being arrested and adjusting to a parent returning home after serving a sentence.

We all appreciate when someone really listens to us, without interruption, and without judgment. Think about that when a child tells you how she's feeling about what happened with her parent. Acknowledge feelings, be open to listening to what can be hard to hear, answer honestly and age-appropriately when asked questions ("I don't know" may be appropriate if followed up with, "But let's find the answer."), and encourage her to come back if she wants to talk further. Explore finding a counselor or therapist with experience working with children in these situations if it seems like this will be helpful to the child.

Support for You
Don't forget to take care of yourself as you care for a child with a parent who is incarcerated. Exposure to the criminal justice system may challenge some of your perceptions. You may be asked to take on responsibilities you hadn't anticipated. Maybe you, too, feel alone and unsupported. Consider what you need for your own care (maybe a support group?) before you need it.

Our efforts together mean we can create a community where children of incarcerated parents are recognized, supported rather than shamed and stigmatized, and encouraged to share their stories.

Melissa Radcliff is the Executive Director of Our Children's Place (www.ourchildrensplace.com), a statewide awareness and advocacy agency focused on children of incarcerated parents.


National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated

Arkansas Voices for Children

Osbourne Association

Straight Talk Support Group

Sesame Street

~ Family and Children's Resource Program, UNC-CH School of Social Work ~