Thursday, June 30, 2016

Nurture and the Impact of Incarcerated Parents Upon Student Success

            The Parent Nurture Science Program of Columbia University seeks to identify research-based strategies for effective parent nurturing.  Researchers at the Parenting and Family Research Center at the University of South Carolina suggest the nurturing of children to be the single most important task of society.  In contrast to the ideals expressed by these excellent research programs, Murphey and Cooper (2015) identified the harsh reality for more than five million U.S. children (7%) that had a parent who lived with them go to jail or prison.  The reported proportion is higher among black, poor, and rural children. 
            The link between a lack of positive parental impact during early childhood, reading failure in the early elementary grades, and subsequent failure in society is profound.  Sixty-six percent (2/3) of students who cannot proficiently read by the end of fourth grade will become involved in jail or on welfare.  This contributes to the pipeline called the school failure to prison cycle.
            When a parent is imprisoned, that person’s child becomes the next potential victim.  While assumptions suggest children with incarcerated parents are many times more likely than other children to be incarcerated as adults, Mumola (2000) found there is no reliable research evidence to support such an assertion.  By contrast, LaVigne, Naser, Brooks, and Castro (2005) found evidence that maintaining contact with one’s incarcerated parent lowers the likelihood of recidivism among incarcerated parents, improves the child’s emotional response to the incarceration, and supports parent-child attachment. 
            Research on the impact of parental incarceration on children's well-being and development sought to examine what happens to children as the result of parental incarceration (Parke & Clarke-Stewart, 2001).  The researchers found incarceration was not a single or discrete event but rather a dynamic process that unfolds over time.  The impact of this dynamic process produces both short-term and long-term effects upon children of incarcerated parents.          

            Intervening in the lives of children with an incarcerated parent to preserve and strengthen positive family connections can yield constructive societal benefits (Christian, 2009).  These benefits included reduced recidivism by the parent, promotion of healthy child development, and decreased intergenerational involvement in the criminal justice system.  However, the child’s adjustment and reaction to parental incarceration is dependent upon the child’s age, gender, psychosocial functioning, and previous attachment to the incarcerated parent (Graham & Harris, 2013).  In contrast to political rhetoric, future research, interventions, and policy decisions must consider established theoretical perspectives, including developmental and ecological contexts as well as cross-level analyses of relationships.
            While many programs and therapeutic models for children with incarcerated parents offer promise for meeting some aspect of the children’s needs, neither the short-term nor the long-term impact upon children’s well-being have been empirically validated (Graham & Harris, 2013; Hairston, 2007).  It is known that the children of incarcerated mothers are four times more likely to remain in foster care than all other children.  Children of incarcerated mothers are more likely to age out of the foster care system.  Children with incarcerated mothers are less likely to reunify with their parents, get adopted, enter into subsidized guardianship, or go into independent living (Moses, 2006). 
            More research is needed to determine the efficacy of therapeutic intervention models and the correlation between parent incarceration and adverse childhood experiences exhibited in Figure 2 below: 

            In the interim, the best way to derail the school failure to prison cycle is to improve literacy rates for at-risk populations.  This is a logical conclusion given all domains of a child’s development, including his or her literacy skills, are interrelated and interdependent (Strickland & Riley-Ayers (2006) and early literacy success has been strongly correlated with school and societal success.  While a school cannot heal an innocent child’s broken heart, the people within the school can be culturally responsive, capable of emotional nurturance, and highly qualified to deliver the curricula.  The presence of those inviting and empowering conditions can thereby address the at-risk child’s need for reliable Response to (Reading) Intervention that provides effective differentiation and formative assessment processes that can optimize success.

Christian, S. (2009, March). Children of incarcerated parents. In National Conference of State Legislatures
Graham, J.A., & Harris, Y.R. (2013). Children of color and parental incarceration: Implications for 
              research,theory, and practice. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 41(2), 66-81.
Hairston, C. F. (2007); Vulnerability of children of incarcerated addict mothers: Implications for
               preventive intervention. Children and Youth Services Review, 27, 67– 84.
La Vigne, N.G., Naser, R.L. Brooks, L.E. & Castro, J.L. (2005). Examining the effect of incarceration and
               in-prison family contact on prisoners’ family relationships. Journal of Contemporary
               Criminal Justice, 21(4).
Moses, M.C. (2006). Does parental incarceration increase a child’s risk for foster care placement? NIJ
               Journal No. 255.  Retrieved from:
Mumola, C. J. (2000). Incarcerated parents and their children . Washington, DC: U.S. Department of
Murphrey, D. & Cooper, P.M (2015). Parents behind bars: What happens to their children?  Retrieved
Parke, R.D., & Clarke-Stewart, K.A. (2001) Effects of parental incarceration on young children
               ASPE, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.  Retrieved from:
Strickland, D. & Riley-Ayers, S (2006) Early literacy: Policy and practice in the preschool years. National
               Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). Camden, NJ: Rutgers University

To cite:
Anderson, C.J. (June 30, 2016) Nurture and the impact of incarcerated parents upon student
               success. [Web log post] Retrieved from