By Brianna Barnes
The University of Mississippi

The murder case in Panola County was used as a springboard for criminal justice story ideas. One of the topics that came from the case was the examination of children in the United States who have a parent who has been incarcerated.

In 2008, The U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Labor Statistics, estimated that nearly three million minors have a parent in prison. How do these children fare statistically?

Rick Spencer, a criminal justice professor at Itawamba Community College, said the United States criminal justice system is not required to inquire whether an inmate is a parent.

“Many children and families fear self-reporting because of custodial agreements,” he said. “Some prisoners’ families feel stigmatized, and there is inadequate communication among prisons and other social services.”

Spencer said one thing is clear; “imprisonment disrupts positive, nurturing relationships between many parents, particularly mothers, and their children.”

“In addition, many families with children suffer economic strain and instability when a parent is imprisoned,” he said. “Intervening in the lives of incarcerated parents and their children to preserve and strengthen positive family connections can yield positive societal benefits in the form of reduced recidivism, less inter-generational criminal justice system involvement, and promotion of healthy child development.”

Spencer is a firm believer in helping families of incarcerated individuals stay on their feet during hard times.

According to Spencer, parental incarceration can affect many aspects of a child’s life, including emotional and behavioral well-being, family stability and financial circumstances.

Unfortunately, much of the research on the effect of parental incarceration on children’s well-being is of poor quality. One major challenge confronting researchers is separating the effects of parental incarceration from the effects of other factors that could have existed long before incarceration, such as child maltreatment, parental use of alcohol or drugs, parental mental illness and domestic violence.

“Some claim that children of incarcerated parents are six times more likely than other children to be incarcerated as adults,” Spencer said. “Some studies suggest that parental incarceration has an independent effect on a child’s behavior, academic performance and mental health. There is no way to know for certain how a child is affected by parental incarceration unless everything is known about the family from birth to imprisonment.”

Spencer said children grow, change and often form relationships with new parental figures during a parent’s incarceration.

“These parental figures are often reluctant to allow a child to re-establish a relationship with a parent who has been released from prison,” he said. “Such family conflicts can destabilize already fragile families and leave children confused and torn. More important, the return of a violent offender can increase the risk that a child will be subjected or exposed to domestic violence.”

There are other things we do not know for sure. For example, although we have evidence of the problems children face after a parent is incarcerated, we cannot assume all children of incarcerated parents will fare poorly. Just because a child comes from a bad situation does not mean they will always find themselves in bad situations.

Spencer said we should reach out to children and provide adequate resources. He said children who are products of parental incarceration are at greater risk to experience material hardship and family instability later in their lives.