‘The Child is Doing Prison Time with the Parent’

Arnold Ventures | Jul 15, 2022 | By Adam Shamsi

Report: The 40% of children that are exposed to the criminal justice system through a caregiver face multiple adverse child development outcomes.

Carmen Garcia is the executive director at Root and Rebound. (Austin Meyer/ For Arnold Ventures)

For Carmen Garcia, the most agonizing aspect of being in prison was not being able to communicate with her teenage daughter. And the emotional turmoil for both of them began as early as the pretrial stage.

“We were filled with anxiety. I didn’t know what would happen, but I would tell my daughter everything would be OK,” Garcia said. When Garcia couldn’t keep that promise, she felt immense guilt. 

While Garcia served her sentence, her daughter had to adjust to a new living space and found a job so that her mom could afford to make phone calls. With her mom behind bars, she even began questioning her own self-worth, telling herself, ​“I don’t deserve the good in life.”

Garcia now knows her daughter spent those years trying to hide her feelings about being put in such a stressful situation.

After about three years in federal prison, Garcia reunited with her daughter and is now the executive director at Root and Rebound, an organization working to restore power and resources to families harmed by mass incarceration. Despite the struggles Garcia faced, she considers herself lucky. Many moms lose parental rights because they can’t go to the custody hearings, sometimes wounding the parent and child’s relationship forever.

When a caregiver is incarcerated, Garcia said, ​“The child is doing prison time with the parent.” 

A new study from the University of Michigan demonstrates how common Garcia’s story is. The study found that about four in 10 American children were exposed to the criminal justice system through a potential caregiver (an adult who co-resides with the child) by the time they reached the age of 18. The study also demonstrates a correlation between children who are exposed to the system and multiple adverse childhood outcomes, including cognitive difficulty, being behind in school, teen parenthood, teen crime, and death by age 18, even after controlling for a range of factors including household income, place of birth, age, gender, and race. 

The study also identified racial disparities in the likelihood of exposure. The percent of children with a potential parental figure that was charged with a crime at some point before they turned 18 is 32% for white children, 17% for Asian children, 45% for Hispanic children, 60% for American Indian children, and 62% for Black children. 

Proportion of Black children exposed to the criminal justice system before the age of 18

“I find it surprising and incredibly sad that two-thirds of Black and American Indian children are growing up in households with justice involvement. And these are not just one-off events. The median Black child grows up in a house with six different criminal episodes; it’s, unfortunately, a pretty regular aspect of their lives,” said the study’s co-author, Dr. Mike Mueller-Smith.

The wide effects of exposure 

The study focuses on the cohort of children born between 1999 and 2005. The researchers used the census, IRS tax forms, and other administrative data to determine if children grew up in a household in which a parent or cohabitating adult faced at least one criminal charge, was convicted of a felony, or spent time in prison. These findings and additional data from the American Community Survey (ACS) indicate that more children are exposed to the criminal justice system than previously estimated, there are harmful outcomes as a result of this exposure, and these outcomes are long-lasting. 

Prior to this study, the best estimate was that one in 33 children had a parent in prison, according to the National Institute of Corrections. However, that number ignored the non-parental caregivers and only examined the impact on children of a parent in prison. 

Mueller-Smith defends the choice to look beyond biological parents as it represents the changing family dynamic in many American families, especially among those disproportionately exposed to the criminal justice system. ​“When looking at a broader set of adults in the household, rather than just biological parents, you might think those people have less influence on the children,” he said. ​“Although the last 50 years of demographic research might say otherwise, some people might say that non-biological parents in the household are less meaningful relationships for children. ”

The University of Michigan study found that the correlation between exposure to the criminal justice system and adverse outcomes did not significantly change based on whether the potential caregiver was biological or non-biological. In addition, for nearly every measurement, the correlation between the negative outcome and exposure to the criminal justice system remained even if the adult was charged with a crime but not incarcerated. 

The study also found that this exposure has long-lasting impacts. The results indicate that the criminal justice system affects the children of incarcerated individuals years after their initial justice interaction. 

“This study shows that the consequences of a criminal record and the barriers we have erected go beyond the individual. All the negative impacts of economic opportunity and other limitations radiate outwards into families and entire communities,” said Carson Whitelemons, Arnold Ventures criminal justice manager. 

This study shows that the consequences of a criminal record and the barriers we have erected go beyond the individual. All the negative impacts of economic opportunity and other limitations radiate outwards into families and entire communities.Carson WhitelemonsArnold Ventures criminal justice manager

Whitelemons speaks from experience when she talks about the ripple effects on the family. Her father was incarcerated when she was growing up. ​“There were years when I wasn’t able to go with him to the voting booth, even though he followed politics more avidly than anyone I knew,” she said. ​“There were years where paying legal fines and fees took away all sense of financial stability for our family and foreclosed opportunities for myself and my siblings.”

A Shift in Perspective

As a part of her job at Root and Rebound, Garcia is working to break this cycle.

“We mistake incarceration with rehabilitation,” Garcia said. ​“Instead, we need to address the trauma.”

“Often, society only thinks of the person but fails to consider the children. We should be asking what we can do to help the children and what tools can we give to the parents?” said Garcia.

Whitelemons echoed Garcia’s sentiment, saying, ​“At Arnold Ventures, we believe that a criminal record should not be a life sentence to poverty and that people with records and their families deserve the opportunity to thrive. That is why we are working to eliminate overly broad legal barriers that exclude people from access to jobs, education, voting, and other fundamental aspects of citizenship. Mitigating the harms of incarceration will make our communities stronger.”


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