How does the criminal justice system affect children with parents who are incarcerated? ROUND 3

Sienna Saunders

Butterfly Effect



Round 3: What affect can incarceration have on the relationship between a criminal and their child?

How do children visit incarcerated parents?

  • Visitation can be an important and meaningful experience for incarcerated parents and their children, but it can also be a source of stress and anxiety when parents’ or children’s expectations do not align with what ends up happening. Many aspects of visitation are outside of the control of an incarcerated parent, but there are things you can do to anticipate problems and reduce stress to make visitation a positive and beneficial experience for everyone involved.

What happens to children whose parents are put in jail? Where do they go and who takes care of them?

  • A family member would petition the court for Guardianship. This can be done by any adult family member including a sibling. The parents can nominate a particular family member to be the guardian. It would be prefered if all the children could stay together with one guardian otherwise there would have to be separate proceedings for each child.
  • The guardian makes all the decisions a parent would, i.e. where they live, school, medical decisions. The parent's rights don't end but they are sort of suspended for the duration of the guardianship. The only way to sever the parent child relationship is if the children were adopted (difference process).
  • Once the parents are out of jail, they can petition the court to "terminate" the guardianship arguing it is no longer necessary. Depending on the reasons they were in jail and the current situation the court may not grant the termination.

Are children with parents in jail more likely to develop mental health problems?



  • The child has both physical and emotional needs that the parents have a responsibility to Both are obviously of vital importance. Often, however, a child may be well provided for in a material sense, but utterly deprived of emotional nurturance; this can be regarded as a form of child abuse. This places the child in a state of psychological conflict, even turmoil.  He may be grateful on the one hand (for having his material needs met), but angry and hurt on the other (due to emotional deprivation).
  • The adult who has experienced a childhood such as described above is likely to repress, or shut off from, his emotions as he has learned they will be dismissed as unimportant ( due to the fact that they were invalidated by the parent). There can be a sense of emotional numbness, or of being ’emotionally dead’.
  • Just as ‘avoidant’ parents have developed their maladaptive attachment style as a result of their early life insecure attachments to their own parents, the children of ‘avoidant’ parents are at risk of themselves developing a maladaptive attachment style which, further down the line, will inevitably adversely affect their own children and so on and on…In this way, insecure / maladaptive attachment styles may be passed down through several generations unless this relentless cycle is broken by effective therapeutic intervention.


Do judges take into consideration children when sentencing a criminal?

  • I did a lot of research for this question but did not see any consideration for family members or children. Most factors were very precis. Example:
  • The defendant has no prior criminal history, or has a very limited criminal history
  • The defendant wasn't the leader or organizer of the crime, but rather helped the leader commit the crime
  • The defendant expresses his remorse for committing the crime and apologizes
  • There were emotional or physical factors involved in the defendant's behavior, such as mental illness or alcohol or drug addiction
  • It was a non-violent crime, and there was little or no threat that the defendant could hurt himself or others
  • The defendant cooperated with law enforcement officers in the investigation of the crime and the apprehension of others involved in the crime


Should children visit incarcerated parents?

  • There are nearly 2.4 million people incarcerated in this country, most whom are parents of children under the age of 18. In fact, there are approximately 7 million children under the age 18 have a parent in prison or jail.
  • Studies have shown that most children manage the crisis of a parent being incarcerated better when they visit their parents. While not visiting may seem easier on their emotions in the short run, in the long run it may not be.
  • One fear that parents often have is that visiting the prison and NOT having a bad time may desensitize the children to incarceration. If the parent is someone they look up to as a role model, some believe that it will give them the impression that the family member’s incarceration is somehow a badge of honor. Whether or not this is something to worry about is unknown, but most issues can be avoided with communication.

  • Contact With Parents Most parents serving sentences in state and federal prisons have some form of contact with their children. The most common is mail contact. In a 2007 prison survey, 75 percent of state and federal prisoners said they had mail contact with their children. More than half reported having phone contact with their children, and 42 percent of state prisoners and 55 percent of federal prisoners said they had visits with their children during the time they were incarcerated.
  • Several factors influence contact between inmates and their children, such as the length of the parent’s sentence, jail and prison policies, and the distance between the correctional facility and the child’s home.
  • State prisons, for example, house inmates who sentences are longer than one year and are more likely than jails to be located in remote areas farther from the child’s home. Jails are often located closer to where children of inmates live and are typically for short-term incarceration before and after adjudication. Studies suggest that the longer parents are incarcerated the less likely they are to maintain at least weekly contact with their children.
  • Visitation Policies Prison and jail policies can influence the quality and frequency of children’s visits with their incarcerated parents. These policies vary across correctional facilities, and are based on security and safety concerns and strategies.
  • Key policy questions include whether to allow “full” contact visits, which allows physical contact; “open” visits that don’t allow contact but do not involve separating parent and children with a physical barrier; and “barrier” visits, during which children and inmates are separated by a Plexiglas window or other type of barrier.
  • Most federal and state prisons allow for some physical contact with children, such as an embrace, handshake, or kiss before and after the visit. A survey of local jails in 10 states found that these facilities are less likely to allow physical contact. Some jails do not allow inmates and children to meet in person. Instead, visits take place across a closed- circuit television system.



Photos (2)
Original Post

Hi Sienna, 

Nice research round! Wow! You really went into depth in your round, and there was a lot of information that I took away from it! The impact of imprisoned parents on children is a really important topic that's not necessarily in headlines currently. Thus, I admire your enthusiasm in bring it into light. I especially enjoyed how you investigated the mental effects on the children with incarcerated parents. What I found as the highlight of that section was how you stated that during such situations, children can be deprived emotional nurturance and that it is regarded as a form of child abuse. Because of this, children are in a state of psychological conflict. Parents have so much responsibility for emotional and physical needs. If you are taking your injury question further, you can combat the emotional aspect of things and delve deep into potential questions a child might ask and why such questions would arise. Questions can vary from “is this my fault” to “can I do something to help”. Nonetheless, I suggest you investigate why do those emotions that a child might face would arise, the long-term effects on the brain and their life with the lack of emotion connections. Another concept that could be potentially interesting, is to find a particular example of children who are faced with this obstacle and how they have handled it. You can also investigate the ongoing discussions on criminal justice where it involved legislative and policy changes affecting incarceration concerning your area. What is the government doing for the children who face these obstacles? Are there any particular important ongoing debates? 


Websites you can look into:  



Good luck! 


 Hi Sienna, 

 Great round of research, I find this topic very interesting. I can't imagine the emotional difficulty that kids would face if they had incarcerated parents.  

 I definitely found it interesting how you brought up the ongoing cycle of this relationship between a child and an incarcerated parent can cause such emotional trauma and neglect. I think it was important that you brought up how this affects how these children treat their own children and so on, similarly to the cycle of child abuse. 

 If you're interested in looking into the psychology behind emotional traumas that arise from events like these, that would be an interesting topic (although I feel like it would lead into a completely separate inquiry in itself, so you don't have to look into it.) 

 I also assume you likely read somewhere that children under 18 are not allowed to visit a family member in prison unaccompanied by an adult, and the criminal is not allowed to have any contact with children if they committed a crime against a child. As well, here is a link about regulations for visiting someone in prison: 


 Good luck with future research, this was a great round! 

I loved your post, it was super organized and easy to read! Your questions were very well thought through, and it seem like you covered almost everything. One question I still have though is if children who have parents or family members in jail are more likely to become criminals. I don't know if you have covered it in your first round or not, as I have not read it (oops ).

Hello Sienna,

I really liked how you went through your questions and gave an answer to all of them. One thing that drew my attention while you were doing it though was how it was different depending on the place where the parent was incarcerated, which makes me wonder, does it also matter what place in the world they are? Possibly different nations have different laws concerning visitation and the rights of prisoners in relation to their family’s. I liked how you mentioned whether or not judges take into account whether the person that they are convicting has children or not, and when you came up with that they didn’t, you gave examples of what they do consider, I really liked that.

I’m not sure if you are doing another round or your metamorphosis next, but here are a few webstites on the subject of incarcerated parents:

Add Reply