1. Sofer, Dalia


Life can be challenging for the millions of children left behind.


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About 2.2 million Americans are incarcerated, up from 500,000 in 1980-an increase of over 300%, according to a report from the Pew Charitable Trusts. This makes the United States the country with the second-highest prison population rate in the world, after the Seychelles. More than 60% of inmates are people of color, according to the Sentencing Project, with black men nearly six times as likely as white men to be incarcerated, and Hispanic men 2.3 times as likely. While there are still far fewer women incarcerated than men, since 1980 the population of female inmates has been increasing at a 50% higher rate than that of male inmates. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, between 1970 and 2014, the number of U.S. women in jail (local or county correctional facilities) increased 14-fold, from less than 8,000 to nearly 110,000. And in 2015 there were 111,495 women in state and federal prisons, up from 13,206 in 1980.

Figure. The wife and... - Click to enlarge in new window The wife and daughters of an unauthorized immigrant protest his arrest by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement during a rally held in his support. Photo by Ted Soqui (C) 2017.

Because of the growth in the U.S. prison population, the issue of mass incarceration in the United States has received increased attention in recent years. But one fact remains overlooked: over half of all inmates (54%) are parents with minor children-including more than 120,000 mothers and 1.1 million fathers. Two-thirds are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses. About 2.7 million U.S. children-one in 28-have an incarcerated parent, and over 5 million have had at least one parent behind bars at some point in their lives.



Black children are disproportionately affected by parental incarceration: one in nine (11.4%) has an incarcerated parent, compared with one in 28 Hispanic children (3.5%) and one in 57 white children (1.8%). Education is also a predictor. Children who have at least one parent with only a high school education are 41% likelier to have a parent incarcerated than children who have at least one parent with some education beyond high school.


Being black combined with having a low education has a double impact. According to a 2009 study in Demography, over half of black children born in 1990 to high school dropouts had a parent in prison. "Parental imprisonment," the study's author wrote, "has emerged as a novel-and distinctively American-childhood risk that is concentrated among black children and children of low-education parents."



Having an incarcerated parent has been associated with multiple physical and emotional health challenges in children, including obesity, asthma, migraine, hypertension, depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder, according to a 2013 study in Pediatrics. Associations have also been found with school-reported problems. In addition, according to the Pew report, children with incarcerated fathers are significantly more likely than other children to be expelled or suspended from school (23% versus 4%). These children are also at an economic disadvantage: when a father is behind bars, a family's income is 22% lower on average than it was prior to the father's incarceration, and it remains 15% lower during the year following the father's release.


Children with incarcerated parents are also more likely to experience additional adverse events, including racial discrimination, parental divorce or separation, a parent's death, domestic abuse, neighborhood violence, and coresidence with a mentally ill or suicidal person, or with someone who has a substance abuse problem.


The increasing rate of women's incarceration presents unique challenges, according to the Vera Institute of Justice: 79% of women in jail have young children, and about 5% are pregnant. These women are often single mothers whose absence from home-even if brief-has longstanding consequences for their families.


To help mitigate the multigenerational effects of incarceration, alternative programs have been initiated. These include prison nursery programs, which allow mothers to care for their infants at their correctional facility, and community-based residential programs, where children live with their mothers, under supervision, in a community residence. Only mothers who have committed nonviolent offenses are typically eligible for these programs.


Lorie Goshin, PhD, RN, assistant professor of nursing at Hunter College in New York City, who has researched prison nursery and community-based residential programs, says the goal is to keep mothers and children together and as safe as possible. A study she conducted that was published in 2014 in the Prison Journal, found that preschool children who had spent the first one to 18 months of their lives with their mothers in a prison nursery had significantly lower mean behavior scores for anxiety/depression and withdrawn behavior than infants or toddlers who had been separated from their mothers upon incarceration. But success is not uniform, she says, because the correctional rules imposed on mothers may be difficult to maintain. For example, a child may be removed from the mother for a relatively simple infraction, such as propping the bottle during feeding.


Likewise, community-based residence programs have mixed results. In another study Goshin conducted that was published in 2015 in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, "felony-charged" mothers and children lived in a supportive housing facility: "As you walk in the building," she wrote, "there are no guard desks, metal detectors, or signs with rules. Instead, there is a bulletin board with pictures of famous African American women, a small bright yellow office, a narrow staircase, and the closed doors of individual apartments. When the back door is propped open to let in the breeze, you see a backyard with a swing set and a garden with vegetables and flowers." The children at this residence considered the case and housing managers less as guards and more as "older aunts." But these positive results, Goshin continues, "were tempered by unmet needs for trauma-informed mental health and pediatric care." She explains that while keeping families together is a first step, attention to their health needs, as well as to the trauma that the women and children have experienced, is also crucial.



Like children of incarcerated parents, the children of detained or deported immigrants are largely overlooked. Between 2003 and 2013, the United States deported 3.7 million unauthorized immigrants to their home countries. And while the rate of deportations has not increased under the Trump administration, the rate of detentions has: between January and April of this year, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says it arrested more than 41,000 immigrants-a 37.6% increase over the same period in 2016.


The arrest of a parent at home is traumatic for children, and arrest outside the home is met with incomprehension, often leading the child to believe the parent has disappeared. According to a joint 2015 report from the Urban Institute and the Migration Policy Institute, children of detained or deported parents exhibited such symptoms as depression, persistent stomachaches or headaches, refusal to eat, self-cutting, substance abuse, and poor school performance. Some families were forced to move to smaller, more affordable homes; others became homeless. In addition, some chose to forego public assistance for fear of being deported. Most also lacked access to health care, as unauthorized immigrant parents are ineligible for Medicaid; about two-thirds of all unauthorized immigrants are uninsured.


According to Goshin, the one element linking these communities is trauma. "And all our work moving forward must acknowledge that," she says.-Dalia Sofer