There are an estimated 2.7 million children of incarcerated parents in the United States. Black children (6.7%) are 7.5 times more likely than White children (0.9%) to have a parent in prison.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, since 1991 the number of children with a mother in prison has increased by 131 percent and the number of children with an incarcerated father has increased by 77 percent. The majority of the children with incarcerated parents are not living in high-income homes—about half of incarcerated mothers and fathers report that they were financially responsible for their children, and 75 percent were employed in the month prior to their arrest. More than 36 percent of mothers in prison were receiving government assistance (e.g. social security, welfare, etc.) prior to their incarceration.
Other research has told us about the level of risk these children face in terms of their future institutionalization and contact with the criminal legal system. It’s been widely reported, for example, that the children of incarcerated parents are six times more likely to be justice system-involved and that seven out of ten children of incarcerated parents will be incarcerated themselves at some point in their lives. But the common understanding of the severity of risk assigned to their future involvement with the justice system has been grossly overstated, according to researchers at Central Connecticut State University.
According to a recent review of the research on children of incarcerated parents, the correct statistic for the risk of justice-system involvement for children of incarcerated parents is 3 out of 10—not 7 of 10. Their research also found that the children of incarcerated parents were three times more likely than their counterparts without incarcerated parents to become justice-system involved, not 6 times more likely. These researchers also found that framing the plight of children with incarcerated parents using these alarming and misleading statistics can promote stigmatization that may have a negative impact on the future outcomes of these children.
Why does this matter?
This new research should inspire us to shift how we talk about the promise of children with incarcerated parents. Do they still need our love and support? Of course, but we need to understand the importance of framing their futures as one of promise, rather than one of risk. Here are three things we can do immediately to uplift their potential futures as well adults:
First, we must publicly acknowledge children with incarcerated parents as resilient. Understanding that these children are tremendously resilient should help us to craft interventions that uplift their most positive qualities, rather than reinforcing (in their minds and otherwise) the aspects of their lives that are in lack. Labeling matters, and in order to reduce the likelihood of these children internalizing negative ideas about their futures, we should publicly acknowledge and celebrate their resilience, not just their risk.
Second, we must respond to the real risks that threaten the wellbeing of children with incarcerated parents. Children with incarcerated parents continue to face very real obstacles to their mental and physical health and their socioeconomic status, which could be addressed through better linkages between schools, public health providers, employment specialists, and correctional institutions. An investment in maintaining family contact is also important to recognizing the importance of supportive, healthy bonding between parents and their children. Resources to support training and other programmatic interventions that improve adult and agency responses to the needs of children with incarcerated parents are important to reducing the way in which we all see the promise of these children, and the extent to which they can recognize the tremendous spirit of resilience in themselves.
Lastly, we must support Fair Chance Employment—it’s one of the most important things we can do for the children of incarcerated parents. Employment is a critical part of establishing the readiness for family reunification, but people—along the gender continuum—with a criminal conviction history often face blanket discrimination when they are trying to find work. Research that I led at the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice on the employment barriers for formerly incarcerated women found that many women will not even complete an application once they reach “the box” asking about their criminal conviction history because they fear that the potential employer will toss their application if they see it checked, even if their conviction history has nothing to do with the job for which they were otherwise qualified. This is no way to prevent recidivism or to provide loving, stable homes for children. Many private and public sector employers have already “banned the box” and provided a fair platform for applicants to seek employment. We can join efforts to expand this effort to the realm of federal jobs.
Today is a national day of action on this matter, led by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the National Employment Law Project (NELP), who have specifically asked President Obama to exercise his executive authority to adopt a suite of federal “fair chance” hiring reforms for jobseekers with arrest or conviction records. This is an action that could benefit not only children with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated parents, but also our community-at-large.
When fairness prevails, we all win.
Monique W. Morris, Ed.D. is a social justice scholar and author of Black Stats: African Americans by the Numbers in the Twenty-First Century, and Pushout, the forthcoming book on the criminalization of Black girls in schools. Follow Dr. Morris on Twitter @MoniqueWMorris.