New study explores the voices of children of incarcerated parents: Implications for policy and practice

Close up compassionate young foster parent holding hands of little kid girl,

Reference: Benninger, E., Schmidt‐Sane, M., Massey, S., & Athreya, B. (2023). Youth for Youth: Raising the voices of children of incarcerated parents and implications for policy and practice. Journal of Community Psychology.

Summarized By: Saniya Soni

About this Study

There is a growing population of young individuals in the U.S. who have experienced having a parent in incarceration, with national estimates suggesting that as many as 1 in 28 children are affected. Families in low socioeconomic circumstances are significantly impacted by incarceration with racial disparities in incarceration further exacerbating its effects, disproportionately affecting BIPOC families. Despite this, there is limited research on the perspectives of these affected youth. This study aims to fill this gap by investigating how parental incarceration influences the wellbeing of young individuals aged 10-18. Additionally, the research seeks to gather recommendations from these youth on how policymakers and practitioners can better address their unique needs, ultimately fostering personal and community growth. 

Key Findings:

  • Youth’s Perceptions of Their Communities: 
    • Participants’ perceptions varied, with some strongly identifying with their neighborhoods, while others related the concept of community to school and other spaces they frequented. 
    • There was a prevalent fear of crime, gun violence, and safety. 
    • While youth generally felt safe at home, they were skeptical about the effectiveness of current policing strategies, viewing police as both dangerous and ineffective in improving community safety.
  • Impact of Incarceration on Families or Communities: 
    • Many youth described witnessing the arrest of parents or close family members, which often involved violent encounters with the police, leading to a pervasive distrust and fear of law enforcement.
    • There was a common sense of helplessness shared among the study participants about sustaining relationships with incarcerated family members. Youth also stressed the importance of being given a choice in maintaining these relationships.
  • Incarceration’s Influence on Mental Health & Flourishing:
    • Participants described incarceration as largely rooted in issues around mental health and having an incarcerated parent negatively impacted youths’ mental health and behavior (academic struggles, increased anger, grief, depression, and, in some cases, even suicidal thoughts).
    • While some participants found counseling helpful, others faced barriers, including discomfort within their families or a belief that counselors who hadn’t experienced their situation might not fully understand.
    • Despite the challenges, the participants demonstrated resilience by pursuing education, setting goals, and engaging in healthy outlets for their mental health. They had aspirations for their futures and were actively working towards them.
  • Recommendations:
    • Youth suggested that while the police were viewed as needed to temporarily de-escalate violent situations, incarceration in general was not viewed to make communities safer and highlighted the importance of rethinking policy and interventions to reduce incarceration rates.
    • Participants identified the importance of community support for children when a parent is incarcerated, as an act of stepping in, guiding youth, and understanding their challenges.
    • Schools and service providers were identified as places that could offer more support, especially when youth felt that teachers and administrators would judge, shame, or not care about them. Universal school meals and before and after-school programs were also proposed. 
    • Mental health care accessibility was brought up as well as increasing formal mental health services within communities of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals.

Implications for Mentoring

This study sheds light on the experiences of children of incarcerated parents (COIP) and their perspectives on how parental incarceration affects their lives. In the realm of mentoring, which has been a significant intervention for COIP in the United States, the implications of these findings are substantial.Mentoring programs dedicated to serving COIP should leverage the insights gained from this study to enhance their support. The researchers’ use of Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) and active engagement of youth as stakeholders throughout the research process should serve as a model for researchers and practitioners alike when considering how to effectively incorporate the perspectives of young individuals, especially COIP, into the development and implementation of targeted mentoring practices. Recent studies from Dr. Jean Rhodes and her colleagues have emphasized the efficacy of targeted mentoring approaches, showcasing larger effect sizes compared to non-targeted methods. The recommendations provided by the participants in this study offer valuable guidance for researchers and mentoring programs seeking to enhance their support for COIP. These insights can be instrumental in refining mentoring practices and ensuring that they align with the specific needs and challenges faced by COIP, ultimately leading to more impactful and beneficial interventions.

To read the entire study, click here.