Abstract: Kept in the Dark: Exploring Children's Preparation for Parental Incarceration and Reentry (Society for Social Work and Research 23rd Annual Conference - Ending Gender Based, Family and Community Violence)

Kept in the Dark: Exploring Children's Preparation for Parental Incarceration and Reentry

Thursday, January 17, 2019: 3:45 PM
Union Square 21 Tower 3, 4th Floor (Hilton San Francisco)
* noted as presenting author
Diane Young, PhD, Director, University of Washington, Tacoma, WA
Carrie Smith, DSW, Associate Professor, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY
Background:  Incarceration is a stigmatizing experience (Boss, 2010; Morsy & Rothstein, 2016).  One outcome of such stigma is that communication and family efforts to prepare children for parental incarceration and reentry are hindered, essentially leaving children in the dark regarding their parents’ whereabouts and wellbeing.  Despite the large population of affected children, few studies have examined what children know about their parent’s incarceration, the preparation they receive for living without their daily presence or for their return to the family at the time of reentry.  Studies that examined this issue found evidence of vague, distorted, or no explanations given to children regarding their parent’s incarceration (Bocknek, Sanderson, & Britner, 2009; Nesmith & Ruhland, 2008).  When children are prohibited from talking about their parent’s absence or are given inadequate explanations, they feel abandoned, have no way to work through their feelings, and experience loss of trust in their caregivers (Mazza, 2002; Poehlmann, 2005).  Descriptive information about the level of information and preparation provided to children allows us to assess how well we are doing at assisting children as they adjust to parental incarceration and reentry.  To that purpose, we address the following broad research question:  How informed and prepared are children for parental incarceration, family reentry, and parental re-incarceration?

Methods:  Fourteen young adults, ages 18 through 28, shared their experiences related to childhood parental incarceration and family reentry.  Participants were recruited via listservs and posted fliers.  Eligibility criteria included parental incarceration for at least three months during the participant’s adolescence and significant involvement by the parent in the participant’s life prior to incarceration.  Using an approach informed by phenomenological analysis, participants’ perspectives as insiders were sought.  Individual interviews were conducted using an interview guide consisting of semi-structured, open-ended questions that moved through multiple stages of parental criminal justice involvement.  Interviews were transcribed for analysis.  Children’s lack of preparation for parental incarceration and reentry emerged as a predominant and recurring theme during the qualitative analysis of the full scope of questions in the interview guide.  Questions germane to the findings reported here include, “What were you told about your parent’s absence?” and “How were you prepared for your parent’s return?” 

Results:  Regardless of the parent’s stage of criminal justice involvement – arrest, incarceration, release and reentry, or re-incarceration, the young people in our sample consistently reported receiving very little information about what was taking place, why, or what they could expect.  Participants, as adolescents, had many unanswered questions, such as how the criminal justice system works and who would take care of them.  Upon a parent’s return home, participants particularly had questions about how to relate to their parent. 

Implications:  With little empirical exploration of this phenomenon reported in the literature, descriptive qualitative data about children’s level of preparation for parental incarceration and reentry help address this gap.  For our sample, small efforts to prepare and inform them were perceived to be helpful as children.  Examples of brief interventions that mitigate the experience of being kept in the dark are described.