Identifying the Needs of Children With Incarcerated Parents

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Approximately 92,000 children inHarris County experience parental incarceration annually via the Harris CountyJail. Texas Children’s Hospital, in collaboration with Baylor College ofMedicine, the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, and the HarrisCounty Sheriff’s Office released a report discussing the results of a localparental incarceration study. 

This one of a kind study representsan interdisciplinary and public health approach to addressing the impact ofparental incarceration at the local level. The purpose of the study was to conduct a needs assessment in order toidentify the needs of children whose parents are incarcerated at the HarrisCounty Jail, as well as fostering short and long term outcomes. 

Parental incarceration is definedas any type of custodial confinement of a parent by the criminal justice system(jails and prisons).  Previous researchindicates that children who are impacted by the incarceration of a parent arelikely to experience negative adversities such as childhood health problems, behavioralproblems, and poor mental health in adulthood. In 2010, the Bureau Justice Statistics released a report detailinginformation about parents in prison and their children.  Since then, several reports have followedestimating how many children nationally are impacted by having a parent inprison.  Most recently a report fromFWD.us and Cornell University has garnered nationwide attention by addressingthe issue of familial incarceration, and the prevalence of incarcerationeffecting at least half of the United States. Despite the increase in conversation about the collateral consequencesand hidden victims of incarceration, there is limited information about thespecific number of children whose parents are housed in county jails. 

Texas has more than 200,000individuals incarcerated in jails and prisons, and approximately 477,000children in Texas has experienced the incarceration of a parent at some pointin their lives.  Harris County is thethird largest county in the United States with approximately 4.6 millionresidents, and Houston is the fourth largest city in the nation.  The Harris County Jail played a pivotal rolein the study with Texas Children’s Hospital by adding nine questions to theirintake form in order to identify which inmates were parents.  Prior to this study, this type of informationwas not captured, and therefore there was no way to obtain an estimate of theimpact of parental incarceration in Harris County.  In a recent press conference, Sheriff EdGonzalez stated that shortly after he became Harris County’s Sheriff, “Weidentified a critical unmet need in our community; how to help children copewith the trauma caused by having a parent in jail?”  Sheriff Gonzalez further reiterated theimportance of data-driven research about parental incarceration in Houston.   

The conclusions from the study weredrawn from interviews with inmates at the Harris County Jail, interviews withcaregivers of the incarcerated parents, and information obtained from an intakeform from the Harris County Jail.  Thestudy found that inmates that reported being a parent or caregiver to at leastone child under the age of 18 were overwhelmingly male (82%) and Black(53%).  For male inmates, the resultsindicated that the mother (86%) was typically the primary caregiver while theyare incarcerated in the Harris County Jail. However, if the mother is incarcerated, the primary caregiver is eitherthe father (39%) or a grandparent (31%).  Sixty one percent of charges against incarcerated parents were feloniesand 37% were misdemeanors.  Assault (24%)and drug related offenses (19%) were the two most common charges.  Interviews with 26 inmates were able tocapture additional information such as the impact incarceration has on theirfamilies not only emotionally, but also financially.  The study reported that 61% of inmates werethe main financial providers for their households, which results in a hardshipfor many families when their lives are disrupted when a person is in jail.  Caregiver interviews provided insight on thestress that is associated with having a loved one incarcerated such asfinancially, and trying to ensure that the inmate remains in communication withtheir child through phone calls and visits at the jail.  Nancy Correa, Texas Children’s Hospital Sr.Community Initiatives Coordinator, stated that caregiver interviews revealedthat the biggest needs for individuals caring for children whose parents wereincarcerated at the jail were “basic needs such as food, car seats, affordablechildcare, and transportation.” Caregivers also raised concerns about the lack of understandingregarding the criminal justice system process such as court dates and theuncertainty of punishment and sentencing. Although the report identified a few programs and services available tofamilies that are impacted by parental incarceration, there is a need forevaluating them in order to identify what works in order to fosterresilience. 

Now that some of the needs ofchildren who are impacted by incarceration in Harris County has beenidentified, we must now focus on a different set of questions that specificallyrelate to individuals incarcerated short term at the local versus state andnational level.  Annually, the HarrisCounty Jail processes over 100,000 individuals, and individuals who have yet tobe convicted represent approximately 75% of the population.  Harris County is currently undergoing seriousrevisions to its bail system; however, how will the new changes impact thepretrial population and individuals who have children under the age of 18?  Are there opportunities for parents who havecommitted low level non-violent offenses to receive alternatives toincarceration in order to lessen the impact of separation of families?  There is also a need to expand this type ofneeds assessment utilized in this study to other jails within the state ofTexas.

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