Main Page
This Issue
Next Article

Family and Children's
Resource Program

Vol. 22, No. 1
December 2016

Suggestions for Engaging Families When a Parent Is Incarcerated

Parental incarceration is a serious issue for the child welfare system. Approximately 10 million children in the United States have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives, and 15 - 20% of youth entering foster care have a parent who's in jail or prison (IWGYP, n.d.; NRCCFI, 2014).

When it occurs, parental incarceration has a huge impact on children and their families: two out of three families with a parent in jail or prison struggle financially due to the loss of income and the cost of visiting and phone calls (IWGYP, n.d.). Having an incarcerated parent increases children's risk of living in poverty, having behavioral problems, and physical and mental health conditions (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2015). However, when they get the support they need, these children show less distress and adjust more easily to the separation from their parent (NRCCFI, 2014).

So how can we engage these children and families and help meet their needs? For suggestions Practice Notes spoke with Melissa Radcliff, Program Director for Our Children's Place of Coastal Horizons Center, a statewide education and advocacy program in North Carolina focused on children of incarcerated parents. (This interview has been edited for style and length.)

What are the top things workers should know about children with a parent who is incarcerated?
These kids still love their parents. They might not like what their parent did, but they still love and want a relationship with them.

They aren't destined to follow in their parents' footsteps. Research shows these children are no more likely than other children to end up in jail or prison (NRCCFI, 2014).

We can make a difference by being supportive. The best way we can support children is to make sure they can have a relationship with their parents. For most people, this leads to realizing the parent needs support, too.

How can workers develop a positive relationship with these children? How can we engage them?
Recognize–but don't express–any negative feelings you may have about these parents. There's a lot of stigma associated with incarceration, and youth notice our feelings about their parents quickly. Even if you have some negative feelings about a parent, she's still the mother and the child still loves her. She will always be an important part of her child's life. If you speak negatively about the parent, it is hard for the child not to take it personally.

Do your homework and advocate. Know the difference between jail and prison. Know what the rules are about family contact (e.g., is there a dress code or a limit on how many family members can attend the visit?). Know what services are available in the parent's facility. Facilitate family visits and contact via phone and letters as often as possible. Coach both the parent and child so they are prepared for family contact.

Ease the burden. Parents in prison can be in a facility over 100 miles away from their child (IWGYP, n.d.). Transportation and phone calls can be expensive. Consider transporting the family to visits and providing bus passes or phone cards. Encourage families to write letters to each other. Letters help the family stay connected between visits.

Be honest with the child. The child needs to know where the parent is and why. It is the parent or caretaker's responsibility to have an honest conversation about this with the child. Help the family consider how to tell the child in a way she can understand. Visit and click on Resources for a list of children's books that help families talk about incarceration. This page also contains resources that could be helpful to social workers as well.

Focus on more than the incarceration. Talk with the child about their parent outside of the incarceration. Ask questions like: Tell me what you like to do with your dad? Did you ever go out to dinner with your mom? What would you talk to your dad about if he wasn't in prison? The incarceration isn't the child's or the parent's identity.

What should workers keep in mind about parents in jail or prison?
Many are still trying hard to be parents. They learned how to parent from their own parents, who may not have been the best model. Give them a chance to explain how they became the parent they are today. Explore what type of parent they would like to be. These parents are hungry for information that will help them be a better parent; help them access that information.

They won't be incarcerated forever. They will be released at some point, so we need to think about their reentry. Explore how you can ensure the child's safety and the family's success when the parent is released.

Know the limits. Consider whether parents can realistically do the things on their case plan. Programs and resources vary across facilities and many incarcerated parents may not have access to the services they need. Recognize that not all facilities have social workers; some have case managers instead. Prison staff have high caseloads and may not have voicemail. Understand that contacting someone in the facility may take considerably longer than usual. Consider these limitations and think "outside the box" when drafting the case plan.

How can we build a positive relationship with these parents and engage them with the agency?
Respect them and let them make decisions. In prison, inmates are constantly told they don't make decisions anymore. Giving parents the chance to make decisions regarding their children builds your relationship and helps them regain a sense of control over their life. This also prepares them for reentry, where they will face a host of parenting choices all the time. If parenting classes are in the case plan, give the parent a few options to choose from. Be aware of literacy level and how parents learn--will lecture, videos, or role play be most helpful? Which would they prefer?

Keep them involved. Remind parents that they have an important role in their child's life. Although their relationship with the child may look a bit different now, it is still important. Help the parent explore ways to remain involved and to connect with their child.

Recognize their parenting priorities. A parent of a 9-year-old may be concerned about bullying, while one with a teenager may be worried about whether their child is having sex. Neither of these things may be a priority for you as a child welfare worker, but having a conversation with the parent about these things shows you care about their concerns.

Engaging parents who are incarcerated isn't always easy, but doing so can pay off in a big way for the parent, the child, and the entire family. Child welfare workers have an important role in helping parents and children maintain their bond, even when they're separated by jail or prison.

Resources to Support Parents Who Are Incarcerated

Guide for Incarcerated Parents Who Have Children in the Child Welfare System. This guide focuses on helping these parents work with the child welfare system to stay in touch with their children and stay involved in decisions about their children's well-being. It also discusses steps required by the child welfare system for reunification, or having children return home to their family after foster care. Available at (613 KB, 34 pages).

Rise Magazine. The summer 2008 issue of this publication by and for parents in the child welfare system is "Parenting from Prison." In it, parents in prison describe their efforts to stay connected to their children in foster care despite their incarceration and to reunify after release. Available at (459 KB, 12 pages).


Practice Knowledge Checklist

The guide Child Welfare Practice with Families Affected by Parental Incarceration (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2015) suggests child welfare professionals explore the following to help prepare them to work with incarcerated parents and their families:

  • Do you have any opinions, biases, or discomfort about working with families affected by incarceration or possibly visiting a correctional facility?
  • Does your agency have any specific protocols for working with incarcerated parents and their families?
  • Do you know your State's laws governing how incarceration affects the termination of parental rights or other aspects of casework with incarcerated parents?
  • Do you have contact information for the State and local correctional facilities near your community?
  • What are the procedures for scheduling visits or having other contact with incarcerated parents at correctional facilities in the area? Are there special procedures or considerations for child visits?
  • Are you aware of the services in your agency, in the community, or in the nearby correctional facilities to support inmates in being involved parents? Fulfilling their case plans? Reentering the community?
  • Does your agency allow case planning meetings to occur in a correctional facility or be conducted by phone or videoconference?
  • Do courts in your jurisdiction allow incarcerated parents to participate in hearings by phone or videoconference? If so, what is the process for setting that up?
  • Do the police departments in your area have protocols, including agreements with the child welfare agency, regarding arrests when children are present or when a parent is arrested?
  • What trainings are available within your agency or State about working with incarcerated parents and their families?
  • Do the correctional facilities in your area have liaisons for working with child welfare professionals?
  • What services or supports are available in your agency or community for relatives caring for children with incarcerated parents? For foster parents?

It may also be helpful to explore similar questions when working with parents detained for immigration issues.

References for this and other articles in this issue