Parental Incarceration has Dire Consequences for Access to Health Care

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Parental Incarceration has Dire Consequences for Access to Health Care

Jim Windell


            Being the child of incarcerated parents can have a number of devastating consequences. For instance, having a parent in prison can have an impact on a child’s mental health, their social behavior and their educational future.

           The emotional trauma that typically occurs and the practical difficulties of a disrupted family life are often compounded by the social stigma that kids face in school and in their peer relationships. In addition, children who have an incarcerated parent may experience financial hardship that results from the loss of that parent’s income. Furthermore, some incarcerated parents face termination of parental rights because their children have been in the foster care system – at times well beyond the time allowed by law.

           Children of incarcerated parents may also face a number of other challenging circumstances. Not infrequently, they may have experienced trauma related to their parent’s arrest or the experiences leading up to it their arrest. Children of incarcerated parents may also be more likely to have faced other adverse childhood experiences, including witnessing violence in their communities or directly in their household, and exposure to drug and alcohol abuse.

           Since the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, the barriers to a successful adjustment place more than five million children who have experienced the incarceration of a parent at risk of worse mental and physical health outcomes. These worsened mental and physical health outcomes may be related to poor access to early health interventions.

           A study, just published in Academic Pediatrics, evaluated the relationships between having an incarcerated parent and health care use and access throughout childhood and adolescence.

           The study’s researchers pointed out that parental incarceration is disproportionately concentrated among Black, poor, and rural children. This inequitable and racialized distribution of parental incarceration can lead to other adverse exposures, including child poverty.

           “While children and adolescents are living with their other parent or caregiver, parental incarceration can disrupt access to care for them through the loss of health insurance and fewer caregivers to help with responsibilities like routine healthcare visits,” says Dr. Winkelman, the senior author of the study, from Hennepin Healthcare.

           The study’s findings support structural interventions to address care disruption from childhood to early adulthood among individuals exposed to parental incarceration. This spans multiple levels of intervention, including clinical screening tools, institutional efforts to support families and communities impacted by incarceration, and policy interventions to improve access to care for this marginalized population of children.  

           Dr. Rohan Khazanchi, the study’s lead author, adds that “Adverse childhood experiences like parental incarceration are not just isolated experiences – they are symptoms of broader structural challenges.” Dr. Khazanchi recommends that health and social service organizations should address parental incarceration as a public health issue by developing programs to support families during and after periods of parental incarceration, so that children aren’t penalized.

           “Leaders in the criminal-legal system should also recognize the impact of their sentencing decisions on whole families and identify opportunities to minimize the negative consequences for children – including, when possible, decarceration,” Khazanchi says.

           The study’s authors suggest new and improved approaches at jails and prisons to help support families. Such supports might include offering training for staff on the impact of parental incarceration on children and families, ensuring parental needs are assessed at intake, linking impacted families to community resources, supporting family-friendly visits between parents, their children, and systems that impact their children (for example, their children’s teachers), implementing evidence-based parent management training programs, involving caregivers in facility programming, and including caregivers and children in reentry planning.

           It can be concluded that trauma-informed, cross-sector partnerships between jails, prisons, policymakers, and clinicians are needed to reduce the life-changing impacts of incarceration on future generations.  

           To read the original article, find it with this reference:

Khazanchi, R., Heard-Garris, N. J., & Winkelman, T. N. A. (2022). Health Care Access and Use Among Children & Adolescents Exposed to Parental Incarceration-United States, 2019. Academic pediatrics, S1876-2859(22)00525-3. Advance online publication.





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