Parental Incarceration Is Bad for Children’s Health

September 23, 2014

“Family unity and stability have profound impacts on children’s lifelong health,” according to a health impact assessment of Proposition 47 released today by Human Impact Partners (HIP), a nonprofit that analyzes the effects of current and proposed public policies on community health. Proposition 47, “The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act,” will appear on the November 4 statewide ballot and would reduce California’s reliance on incarceration for nonviolent crimes.

HIP’s study estimates that over 10,000 children could be affected by the measure due to a resentencing option for parents who are currently incarcerated. Moreover, as many as 5,800 children a year may not have to see their parent go to prison for a nonviolent crime in the future.

The CBP’s own analysis of Proposition 47, released earlier this month, discussed the negative health impact of incarceration on individuals and their communities. As parents experience periods of incarceration, their children can be exposed to persistent poverty, food insecurity, frequent relocations, and repeated abandonment. This often leads to childhood behavioral difficulties, lower academic test scores, and an increased likelihood of contact with the juvenile justice system.

Incarcerating parents increases children’s likelihood of developing health problems, even when other risk factors — such as chronic poverty, access to health care, and the safety of the neighborhood — are taken into account. In a new study, Kristin Turney, assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine, found that childhood learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD), behavioral problems, developmental delays, and speech or language problems are all significantly related to parental incarceration. Having a parent incarcerated was in some cases more detrimental than divorce or the death of a parent.

As these youth transition into adulthood, many play a supporting role for their parents, which can put a strain on their own lives. Children of Re-Entry is a youth-led New America Media project that is working to document the stories of young people as they grapple with their parents’ incarceration and subsequent return home. In 21-year-old Alisha’s words:

A part of me knows that I’m my mom’s backbone, almost. When I’m around she tries harder. But sometimes that’s not good enough. I don’t want to look over my shoulder all the time. Like, I don’t want to worry about coming home and finding my mom not okay.

Addressing the health needs of children with incarcerated parents is a common-sense public safety approach. Untreated and unaddressed health issues as children can lead to future problems, such as drug addiction, that are prevalent in the criminal justice population. Supporting family stability would likely improve health outcomes and educational and employment prospects for these youth. Reducing unnecessary incarceration for nonviolent crimes could be one way to support family stability and thereby strengthen the long-term well-being of our communities.

— Selena Teji