How parental incarceration disrupts children’s early brain development

Last updated: 10-27-2020

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How parental incarceration disrupts children’s early brain development

Every Sunday morning for five years, K. packed up her son, M., filled a bag with books and snacks, and took the bus to 26th Street and California Avenue. Infamous to Chicagoans, the intersection is home to the Cook County Jail. Mother and son entered the facility, sent their belongings — even M.’s milk — through a metal detector, clapped their shoes together for the guards, and sat in the waiting room. Eventually, they would be granted what they’d come for: a 15-minute visit with M.K., M.’s dad and K.’s partner. (The family is being referred to by their initials in order to protect their privacy.)

The visits, though, were far from ideal. M. often fell asleep in the waiting room and woke up cranky when his father appeared. The rules governing the visit felt punitive: no toys, no candy, no touching. K. often left feeling as if she and M. were the ones waiting for trial. “We are visiting an inmate. We are not inmates ourselves,” she said. K. was painfully aware of what her son — never once held in his father’s arms — was being denied during the most critical time of his life. She did everything in her power to help him and his dad forge a relationship, but it isn’t easy to parent through plexiglass. 

Though the experience was isolating, K.’s family wasn’t alone. Right now, there are nearly 2.3 million people in the United States being held in prisons and jails — roughly half of whom are parents.

As the carceral state has come under increased scrutiny amid skyrocketing incarceration rates, the children of incarcerated parents have remained in the shadows. They are collateral damage of a broken and racist system. Reflecting the profound racial disparities in incarceration, Black children are six times more likely than white children to have had a parent in prison. 

Tragically, parental incarceration produces menacing effects on children of all races. A diverse body of research has found that kids with incarcerated parents are more likely than their peers to be placed in special education, be held back in school, receive poor evaluations from teachers, demonstrate increased delinquency and drop out. Parental incarceration has long-lasting consequences into adulthood: Those who experience it are less likely to enroll in or graduate from college, and more likely to be diagnosed with depression, experience early parenthood and be charged with a felony.

What’s behind these alarming outcomes? While it can be difficult to disentangle the effects of parental incarceration from the effects of poverty — two threats that often occur in tandem — research suggests that several mechanisms are at play. (It’s worth noting that there are cases in which a child may benefit from the incarceration of a parent who is abusive or dangerous. However, the overwhelming majority of children are harmed by parental incarceration.)  

Unsurprisingly, studies indicate that children of incarcerated parents often experience trauma stemming from the family separation, and suffer from stigma-induced isolation. Incarceration can also impair the mental health of both the incarcerated parent and the child’s other parent or caregivers and increases the likelihood of divorce or separation. It can increase food and housing insecurity and depress employment opportunities, wages and property ownership. Because household income, relationship stability and quality parenting are all crucial for children’s well-being, it’s little surprise that incarceration — by disrupting those elements — produces negative effects on children.

But there is also a much less visible — more foundational — explanation for the insidious toll of parental incarceration: its potential disruption of healthy early brain development. This is especially true for the many children who are separated from their parents by incarceration during the first five years of life. This is the period in which more than 1 million new synaptic connections are formed every second and 85 percent of the physical brain is built, ultimately establishing the basis for all future thinking and learning. Shockingly, one study following low-income children in large U.S. cities found that nearly a third had experienced paternal incarceration between their first and fifth birthdays.

During those early years, children require two primary inputs for healthy development: exposure to nurturing talk and interaction, and shelter from stress. These inputs contribute directly to a child’s development of cognitive and executive function (behavioral) skills — and parental incarceration disrupts both.

Physical absence prevents a parent from engaging in language-rich, nurturing behavior. Oftentimes, what creeps into the lives of children instead is “toxic” stress, which has proven, negative effects on foundational brain development. A chronically activated stress response leads to elevated cortisol levels. When present during crucial developmental periods, this excess cortisol upsets children’s development at a cellular level. It places children at risk for both short- and long-term behavioral and cognitive delays — which we often see in children of incarcerated parents.

The negative relationship between parental incarceration and children’s behavioral and cognitive skills manifests in a number of ways. Children of incarcerated parents often lag behind their peers on measures of vocabulary development, reading comprehension, math performance and mathematic problem-solving. Their attention spans and recall abilities are affected, and they exhibit increased levels of aggression. Taken together, this body of evidence makes it clear that children wind up paying the highest cost for our broken justice system.

Related: ‘It’s really hard to parent from behind bars’

How, then, do we ensure that children aren’t forced to serve time alongside their parents? How do we safeguard their futures? We do so by taking concrete steps to mitigate the most devastating impacts of incarceration on early childhood development.

Prison nurseries and programs that teach parents about child development should be expanded. Visiting times should be increased, parents should be allowed to hold their children during these interactions, and more financial and psychological supports should be offered to people reentering society after prison. Every state in the nation should also adopt a law that enumerates the right of all children to have access to their parents and caregivers, including those who are incarcerated, and to the brain-building potential inherent in those relationships.

In the absence of such guarantees, K., the mother in Chicago, took it upon herself to do everything in her power to support her son’s healthy development. I first met them when K. enrolled in a study at the center I co-direct, the TMW Center for Early Learning + Public Health, which helps parents learn the science of early brain development. She did her best to make up for the absence of her partner, M.K.,   in the early years of their son’s life, but she never should have had to. 

After waiting for half a decade in pretrial detention, M.K. was exonerated. DNA evidence from a cellphone found at the crime scene didn’t match him, and the key witness in the case said the suspect was between 5 feet, 6 inches and 5 feet, 9 inches tall. M.K. was 6 feet, 4 inches. 

His innocence makes his family’s story all the more tragic and unjust, but it does not in any way suggest that the children of guilty parents deserve what M. was forced to endure. The truth is, M. served every day of his father’s “sentence,” too. The criminal justice system deprived him of his first five years with his father — extracting an enormous and painful toll.

We can no longer ignore the very real relationship between incarceration and child development. On the contrary, we should look to the science of early childhood to inform much-needed reforms to our justice system. 

Dr. Dana Suskind is co-founder and co-director of the TMW Center for Early Learning + Public Health, director of the Pediatric Cochlear Implant Program, and professor of surgery and pediatrics at the University of Chicago.

This story about parental incarceration was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter. 


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