Incarcerated parents, and parents reentering the community after incarceration face significant challenges that affect their role as a caregiver or role model.  Labeled as “ex-offenders,” these parents face increased barriers to securing housing, education and employment.  They are often expected to resume parenting duties (under intense scrutiny) at the same time they are fending off the deleterious effects of the addictions and the dysfunctional families and communities that played a part in their incarceration.

Children of incarcerated parents suffer from detriments in and to the family system.  Families and children affected by incarceration are at an increased likelihood of:

  • Financial instability and material hardship
  • Instability in family relationships, family structure, and in residential mobility
  • School behavior and performance problems
  • Shame and social and institutional stigma.1

While there is a body of evidence that suggests children of incarcerated parents are up to seven times more likely to become involved in the criminal justice system, this finding is frequently disputed.  While the details of that dynamic are elusive, it is certain that the child with an emotional attachment to the incarcerated parent suffers significant emotional and domestic disruption.  Frequent contact with the parent during incarceration is essential for parent-child attachment and growth, and leads to lower recidivism among parents.1 Children’s needs are often not assessed or treated during the period of incarceration and reunification, which may lead to complex emotional and adjustment difficulties.

National Scope

In 2007, there were 809,800 incarcerated parents in the US.  1.7 million minor children had a parent in prison – an 82 percent increase since 1991.  Between 1991 and 2007, the number of incarcerated mothers increased by 122 percent; incarcerated fathers increased by 76 percent during that same time period.2

Local Prevalence, Missouri

Missouri’s total prison population in 2009 was 30,476.  Out of 50 states, Missouri’s incarceration rate (2008) ranked 11th.  With 4,467 prisoners, the incarceration rate is high in St. Louis City (6th of the state’s 115 counties).  St. Charles County (with 1,081 prisoners) and St. Louis County (with 3,280 prisoners) had relatively low incarceration rates for Missouri, and ranked 99th and 92nd, respectively.

For many incarcerated parents, specific conditions exist – such as non-violent offenses, drug dependence, and untreated mental health issues – which would suggest alternatives to incarceration.  Alternatives are often less costly for the state and can be healthier for children and families, depending on the family’s individual circumstances.  The most recent Department of Corrections profile of the offender population reported that 62 percent of Missouri’s female prison population had mental health problems (categorized as between minimal and severe impairment).  Over 87 percent of females had mild to severe substance abuse treatment needs.

Thirty five percent of female offenders were convicted of nonviolent offenses, and an additional 28.8 percent had drug-related offenses.3The average sentence in the metro area is between 9 and 13 years for women, and between 12 and 17 years for men.

Local Prevalence, Illinois

The State of Illinois had 45,548 prisoners in 2008.  Out of 50 states, Illinois’s incarceration rate (2007) ranked 33rd.  Madison County, IL had 817 offenders and St. Clair County, IL had 710.

The State of Illinois has a “Moms and Babies” Program at its Decatur facility.  The pilot program, started in May of 2007 could serve up to five incarcerated mothers and their newborns.  The long-term goals of the program include serving 20 mothers and their babies.

Recent History in the St. Louis Metro Area

Just after the year 2000, two initiatives arose to address children with incarcerated parents.  The first was the Children’s Services Commission Task Force, which was developed as a provision of SB 721 (1998).  The State of Missouri established the group to study the status of children with incarcerated parents and recommend initiatives.  In December, 2002 the Task Force released a Report to the Children’s Services Commission of the Missouri General Assembly.  The Final Report, published in 2009 outlined final recommendations and calls for the creation of a state interagency task force.

A second community effort was the Mother & Children Together Planning Group.  This community-based collaborative worked in metropolitan St. Louis for 18 months with a grant from the National Institute of Corrections to develop a plan to keep families connected during incarceration.  An Issue Brief from the University of Missouri Columbia outlines the activities recommendations of these groups.

Let’s Start, Inc., active since 1989, is an important St. Louis area agency that is devoted specifically to incarcerated women, most of whom are parents.  The agency currently convenes The Coalition for Children of Offenders, a collaborative group that works on policy, programs and services for incarcerated parents, their children, and caregivers.  The Missouri Department of Corrections has multiple program and services geared toward parents and children.  See Key Stakeholders for a list of agencies and organizations that provide local services.

Annie E. Casey Foundation.  Children of Incarcerated Parents Fact Sheet.

The Sentencing Project.   (2009).  

Incarcerated Parents and Their Children: Trends 1991-2007

Missouri Department of Corrections.  (February 5, 2010).  

A Profile of the Institutional and Supervised Offender Population on June 30, 2009.