Experiences of youth service providers that work with children of incarcerated parents

Axelson, A., Kelleher, K., Chisolm D., and Boch, S. 2020. “‘How Do I Help This Kid Adjust to What Real Life Is for Them?’: Youth Service Providers Experiences on Supporting Children with Incarcerated Parents.” Children and Youth Services Review 110: 104802.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • One in every fourteen American children have parents that have been incarcerated at some point in their youth
  • Evidence has demonstrated a strong correlation between parental incarceration and detrimental economic, health, and social outcomes for children
  • This study explores the experiences of youth service providers, who work with (or used to work with) children of incarcerated parents
  • Three salient themes were identified from the “Upon Arrest”, “Throughout Incarceration”, and “Upon Reentry” phases:
    • Justice contact needs
      •  (e.g. better identification, screening, & tracking of exposed youths)
    • Social & economic needs 
      • (e.g. access to family-friendly visitation spaces)
    • Communication needs 
      • (e.g. child-appropriate explanations of what to be expected when parents are released)
  • Findings highlight the importance for youth service providers and researchers to consider every individual child’s needs throughout their parents’ incarceration, 
  • Many providers that were interviewed pointed out a need for more training, communication resource guides, and spaces for family support
  •  They also emphasized the need for efficient identification of children exposed to parental incarceration & the use of more inclusive language in school and community settings

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)


Over five million youth, or one in every 14 children, in the United States have lived with a parent incarcerated at some time point in their childhood. Research has found strong associations between the exposure of parental incarceration (PI) and a host of negative social, economic, and health outcomes in youth. Multi-level community and family supports for those exposed to PI are encouraged, yet research is limited on the experiences of the youth service providers that would be tasked to help support these youths.


The goal of this study was to provide a detailed account and description of the experiences of youth service providers (including teachers, behavioral health specialists, counselors, and youth mentoring personnel) who have worked with children currently or previously exposed to PI. Qualitative data were gathered from 30 providers using semi-structured, in-depth phone interviews. Data were analyzed using qualitative content analysis.


Provider experiences working with children exposed to PI were delineated by phase of incarceration of the parent: upon arrest, during incarceration, and upon re-entry into the community. Three primary themes were identified for the child for each phase of incarceration: justice contact needs 2) social and economic needs and 3) communication needs.


Our results underscore the imperative need for timely and sensitive screening for youth exposure to PI, resource guides on how to communicate and navigate the justice system, and a coordinated hub of social services to support economic and housing stability for the child and/or family. Trauma-informed and trust-building approaches were also important strategies providers used when supporting youths exposed to PI.


Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

Consistent with a recent policy report on how to best support children of incarcerated parents (Laub & Haskins, 2018), the interviews highlighted the need for a rigorous system to identify, educate, screen, and track youths exposed to PI upon arrest of the parent. While barriers and challenges were primarily discussed, youth service providers also relayed numerous strategies and offered recommendations to help support children exposed to PI. Our results are in line with previous qualitative work seeking to understand the effects of PI on the experiences of the children exposed (Nesmith & Ruhland, 2008). Nesmith and Ruhland (2008) highlighted five primary themes, including: (1) social challenges; (2) awareness and attention to adult needs; (3) the caregiver serving as the gatekeeper of the child-parent relationship; (4) conceptions of prison and feelings of fairness; and (5) resiliency. Our study reinforced and extended their primary findings from the perspective of the youth service provider.

Another critical aspect our results revealed was the difficulty, and at times complete inability, in obtaining parental consent for education and mental health support services for youth exposed to PI. This difficulty was often attributed to the physical barriers of retrieving the consent or the caregivers’ desire to protect the child. In addition, due to the lack of screening and tracking of children of PI, there is no way of understanding exactly how many children exposed to PI are not able (even if they are willing) to access helpful services due to legal barriers for a child residing under non-parental care. Difficulties in obtaining consent for support services are also commonly reported difficulties for children residing in foster or kinship care (Denby, 2012). Some states have enacted laws on non-parental educational or medical consents (or caregiver authorization affidavits) that allow kinship caregivers to make educational and medical decisions and to access necessary supports (American Bar Association, 2014, Pathak and Chou, 2019). However, most of these states still require parental consent for the affidavit to be recognized. As of early 2019, there were 9 states (Alaska, Arkansas, Illinois, Minnesota, Maine, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Vermont, West Virginia) that currently had no laws or procedures that would be able to grant kinship-caregivers the ability to sign educational or medical consents without legal custody (Williams-Mbengue & Ramirez-Fry, 2019). Dependent on the state, availability, and legal understandings of the youth service provider and/or caregiver, it is easy to understand how children of incarcerated parents could be at an incredible disadvantage to timely support compared to other children unexposed to PI.

Providers also raised the importance of the prison offering parent education courses upon release, access and availability of such course vary and typically only serve those parents who have low-level offenses. Wide variation exists across prison systems on what is available, service wise, to parents upon release. Results from a small pilot found positive effects for both the child and the mother, when incarcerated mothers completed an emotion-focused education program before release compared to outcomes in mothers who were in the control condition (Shortt, Eddy, Sheeber, & Davis, 2014). However, more research is needed to understand the effect of family reunification and other types of parental education on the effect of child well-being. Communication and resource guides were also indicated upon release of the parent from incarceration. Dissemination of resource kits and caregiver-child communication strategies on the topic of incarceration developed by Sesame Street (Coping with Incarceration) (Sesame Workshop, 2014) were well received and perceived as useful by community-based and clinical providers serving children exposed to PI (Shlafer, Wanous, & Schubert, 2017). However, these kits primarily focus on how the caregiver should communicate with the child and not on how providers should communicate. While health providers advocate the importance of discussing incarceration status with patients seeking care (Sue, 2017), few resources, if any, exist that help guide provider communication with families exposed to incarceration.


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