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Visitation Programs Crucial for Kids With Incarcerated Parents, New Study Shows

little girl holding her father's hand in prison

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study finds that children typically feel more positively than negatively about their incarcerated parents.
  • Past research has focused more on the negative impacts of parental incarceration on children, so this study is part of a growing line of research focused on children's resilience.
  • The findings suggest that expanding prison and jail visitation programs would likely have benefits for children whose parents are incarcerated.

Though American culture tends to paint parents who are incarcerated as having negative relationships with their children, new research finds that view isn't entirely accurate. Kids whose parents are incarcerated actually have strong bonds and tend to say more positive than negative things about them, according to new research from Columbia University published in the Journal of Cognition and Development.

The findings indicate that keeping parents and children separated by strict visitation policies might do more harm than good, the researchers say. "Even if a parent is incarcerated, their kids often miss them and often have all of these positive emotions towards them." says Larisa Heiphetz, co-author of the study and an assistant professor of psychology at Columbia University. "It's definitely not the case that child-parent relationships are inherently negative just because somebody is incarcerated."

Children's Feelings For Their Parents vs. Other Incarcerated People

After speaking with children through local organizations that work with the families of incarcerated individuals, researchers found that children reported more positive than negative feelings about their incarcerated parents.

During interviews for the study, Heiphetz says one child of an incarcerated parent described their parent as inspirational. "Some kids talked about how they thought about their parents all the time," she says. "Particularly, when they were being recognized for something like if they won an award or they were in a play, they would want their parent to be there, or they would want to talk with their parents about that." 

Larisa Heiphetz, PhD

Some kids talked about how they thought about their parents all the time.

— Larisa Heiphetz, PhD

James Dunlea, co-author of the study and a PhD candidate in psychology at Columbia University, says the research builds on previous work he and Heiphetz did, which looked at how children with and without incarcerated parents felt about incarcerated people generally. They found that both groups of children attribute incarceration to factors inside someone, like "bad moral character," Dunlea says.

The findings stood in contrast with previous research that found that children are optimistic about other people. Taken together, the two findings offer competing ideas about how children might feel about their own parents who are incarcerated. Their ultimate findings — that children felt more positively about their own parents — shows that children's feelings about an incarcerated person might depend on whether they have a personal relationship with them.

"In our study, we're finding a great deal of positivity that children have toward their parents who are incarcerated," he says. "But when they're asked to think about other people who might've come in contact with the law, then they're reporting a great deal of negativity. It was kind of surprising for us to see so starkly that children are really focusing on the idea of their parents as being incarcerated versus people in general being incarcerated."

The Effects of Parental Incarceration on Children

Dunlea says he was interested in talking with children whose parents are incarcerated because past research has focused on the negative health and education outcomes kids can face. For example, previous research has found that adolescents whose parents are incarcerated can have a higher risk of mental health problems. Young adults who experienced parental incarceration as children had a higher risk of not only mental health issues like depression but also physical conditions such as asthma, high cholesterol, and poor health.

James Dunlea, PhD Student

People oftentimes make negative inferences about what these relationships might be like without actually talking to these children in the first place.

— James Dunlea, PhD Student

Much less research has focused on the positives and the resilience of these children, Dunlea says. "Although incarceration itself is extremely negative and impacts the children, the emotions that children feel toward their parents are still quite positive," he says. "We are highlighting one positive aspect of their lives, which is their relationship with their parents. People oftentimes make negative inferences about what these relationships might be like without actually talking to these children in the first place."

Evidence For Expanding Visitation Programs

Heiphetz says people have told her that children whose parents are incarcerated are "better off" if they don't get to see them. But she says the study's findings suggest the opposite: not being able to see their parents likely makes children worse off.

"I think what stood out to me most was sometimes the strength of these relationships and the pain that was being caused by separating parents and their children," she says. "The person incarcerated is not the only person who is serving that time... Their kids haven't done anything wrong, but they're being punished alongside their parents."

Lawmakers and social workers have expressed hesitation in the past about whether it's a good thing for children and parents to be in contact with one another, Dunlea says. Their findings show that it probably is, and, as a result, prisons and jails shouldn't make it harder for people to see incarcerated family members.

"Our research is suggesting that because there is this positivity in this relationship, maybe we should be doing a lot more on the policy end to make it easier for children and parents to come in contact with one another," Dunlea says. "It seems like there might be many benefits for children to sustain this already positive relationship with their parents."

What This Means For You

As criminal justice reform continues to receive more attention and focus, it's important to consider the impacts of mass incarceration and racism in the criminal justice system on both incarcerated people and their families and surrounding communities.

Racism, discrimination, and incarceration can all lead to generational trauma, which can have ongoing mental and physical health impacts for people of color—including children.

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