Children of prisoners - maintaining family ties

Literature review - Parent-child separation

Parental imprisonment might cause adverse outcomes for children because parent–child separation is harmful for children (45–48). Consistent with this theory, small-scale studies report that children often show sadness and miss their imprisoned parent (7, 8, 11, 14–16, 49).

If parent–child separation explains the effects of parental imprisonment on children, children whose parents are imprisoned for longer periods and children whose parents are imprisoned more frequently should be at greater risk for adverse outcomes. Consistent with this hypothesis, in the Cambridge Study boys were significantly more likely to be chronic offenders in adulthood if their parents were imprisoned for longer than two months than if their parents were imprisoned for less than two months (35 per cent versus seven per cent) (50). In Project Metropolitan, the more often parents were imprisoned the more offences children were likely to commit as adults (50). However, these differences may have been caused by higher levels of antisociality among longer-sentence prisoners and parents who were frequently imprisoned.

Separation because of parental imprisonment might be particularly harmful for children because it is often unexpected, sometimes violent at the arrest, often unexplained, and children are severely restricted in their contact with imprisoned parents (10, 15). If separation because of parental imprisonment is particularly harmful for children, children of prisoners should have worse outcomes than children separated from parents for other reasons. Consistent with this, in the Cambridge Study boys separated because of parental imprisonment had higher rates of antisocial behaviour, mental health problems, and other adverse outcomes than boys separated from parents for other reasons, even after other risk factors were controlled for (25, 30).

Evidence to date is consistent with the idea that separation because of parental imprisonment is harmful for children. However, it is difficult to separate out the effects of separation from the effects of other adversities that often follow parental imprisonment (such as loss of family income and stigma). These effects have not been successfully disentangled to date. Therefore, it is not possible to state conclusively whether traumatic separation is an important cause of children’s problems following parental imprisonment.