Parent-child separation in almost any circumstance is difficult for children. Losing a parent to prison, however, can be especially traumatic.37 As a mother who had been sent to prison for drug offenses told Human Rights Watch, she believed her children were punished for her crime as much as she was.38 In addition to the feelings of abandonment, grief, fear, guilt, and anger that they share with children of divorced or deceased parents, children of incarcerated parents also may experience intense anxiety, shame, and unique fears about the conditions under which their parents live.
The incarceration of a parent can be especially scarring because of the shame that often surrounds it. Some children may be sensitive to the stigma of their parent's crime and imprisonment and feel embarrassed or resentful around their peers and other adults. Their classmates may deride them, making them feel further alienated. The children's feelings are also affected by those of their substitute caregivers. Some caregivers experience shame and uncertainty about how to deal with parental incarceration, leading them to maintain a "forced silence" and denying the children a critical outlet in which to express their grief and anger. The sudden absence of a parent, moreover, may make children wary of trusting or depending on the remaining or new caregiver. They may feel that at any moment other adults in their lives could also disappear.
Child experts agree that loss of parents to prison can be a continuing emotional trauma for children. It can have a significant impact on the children's development, manifested in some cases by learning difficulties at school, aggressive behavior, and involvement in crime. Children of incarcerated parents can have trouble concentrating and struggle academically to keep up with their peers. They are susceptible to behavioral problems in and outside of school. Good statistics are not available, but some experts believe that the children of incarcerated offenders are more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system than other children their age.
Coping with the difficulties of separation may be particularly difficult for children whose parents are incarcerated for drug offenses because they typically live in circumstances that are already stressful, if not traumatic. These children typically live in predominantly minority urban neighborhoods struggling to cope with poverty, inadequate public services, discrimination, limited educational and work opportunities, tenous community support systems, crime, and substance abuse. The loss of a parent to prison can compound the risks the children already confront, by depriving them of a critical source of care, stability, and love.
Not all drug offender families are torn apart by the incarceration of a parent. In many cases, families were in disarray prior to parental incarceration and some if not all of a parent's children were already living apart from a parent before he or she was sent to prison. The impact of parental incarceration is greatest when the parent had been actively present in the children's life and is then removed.39
Most inmates convicted on drug charges will leave prison and return to their communities following incarceration. Parents will return to children who have grown up in their absence, who have developed unique emotional needs, who have formed relationships with other caregivers, and/or who have conflicting emotions about the parent who "left them" for prison. Some of those children carry emotional injuries that will be a long time in healing. Repairing frayed family ties is a challenge-one that sometimes proves insurmountable.