By Dee Ann Newell and Ann Adalist-Estrin

Landmark Policy Recommendations are Unveiled

During the year from 2008 through 2009, the Council of State Governments, a non-partisan “think” tank, held a series which convened national experts. Along with many others in both the non-profit and profit sectors, Dr. Susan Phillips (professor at the Jane Addams School of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago), Dee Ann Newell (who led the National Bill of Rights Project for the Open Society Institute), and Ann Adalist-Estrin (Director of the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated), were some of the advisors to this initiative engaged by the Council. Dr. Susan Phillips testified at the congressional briefings and in the presentation to the Vice-President’s office.

On October 26, 2009, CSG’s final recommendations on behalf of children of the incarcerated were released to the public, and disseminated to congressional staffers and a representative of Vice President Biden. Please note that the Council of State Governments introduced the Second Chance Act recommendations that spurred federal legislation around re-entry services. Having the Council oversee the development of these recommendations and their dissemination is a significant milestone in the movement to improve responses to children of incarcerated parents.

The recommendations come from careful and exhaustive review of the established barriers and sources of harm to these children. Often barriers were created through lack of consideration of the needs of these children, especially their need to maintain relationships with their parents during the incarceration. The need to support the caregivers of children whose parents are incarcerated so that they can best care for the children has also been overlooked in policy and practice.

Other recommendations in the CSG Report address the flaws in our child support enforcement system while a parent is in prison, which often leads to a parent reentering society with arrearages that are impossible to manage. A careful examination of our child welfare system, as it relates to children of the incarcerated in foster and kinship care was addressed in the report. Recommendations that can be made at the federal level were addressed, such as adjustments to the federal 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act timeline to reduce the escalating number of parental termination of rights of incarcerated parents brought on by sentencing length alone.

The recommendations also include:

  • Sentencing improvements;
  • Locating prisons closer to where their average prisoner comes from, and placing parents in prisons closer to their families;
  • Addressing transportation needs of the families to insure visitation, through funding and support for transportation programs;
  • Improving visitation programs and visiting services that are child-friendlier;
  • Creating multiple kinds of supports for caregivers of the children, typically kinship caregivers and foster parents, to permit greater connection between the children and their parents;
  • Instituting data collection “with a purpose,” meaning not just identifying numbers but having an established purpose for the use of the numbers to improve access for the children and services to the families;
  • Mechanisms to establish cross-system reviews of policies and practices; and,
  • Greater attention and support for research and the research questions most urgently in need of answering were addressed.

Other recommendations focused on evaluation of programs and practices, a clear review and revision of barriers for families and prisoners to receiving public benefits, and much attention to arrest protocols and law enforcement training to mitigate trauma for the children present at a parent’s arrest. An emphasis on promising practices such as mentoring, prison nurseries and enhanced visitation programs rounded out this exhaustive framework of recommendations for improving responses to children of incarcerated parents.

Families and Service Providers Convened

In response to the proposed recommendations by CSG, a series of focus groups and town hall-style meetings were convened by NRCCFI in Arkansas, Pennsylvania, California and Illinois. Focus groups were convened for incarcerated parents in Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Illinois and California. Formerly incarcerated women in Arkansas and Illinois, youth affected by parental incarceration in Arkansas and Pennsylvania, relative caregivers in Arkansas and Illinois, and a town hall meeting of family members and service providers in Philadelphia convened. The following responses by the families to the recommendations were made by those in attendance. Most of their reactions were incorporated into the final version of the CSG Action Plan. (For a more in-depth look at the Philadelphia convening, click here to read the article “Toward a White House Conference on Children and Youth: Considering the Needs of Children of Incarcerated Parents” by Dee Johnson from the Pennsylvania Prison Society publication, Correctional Forum).

Research on Children of the Incarcerated

It was recommended by the focus group participants that incentives be created that encourage effective information-sharing among agencies that may already collect relevant data on children of incarcerated parents. Focus group participants supported the need for data collection but cautioned policymakers to include guidelines that insure the confidentiality of children and families as well as to protect incarcerated parents.

More research on the long term impact of parental incarceration on children was mentioned as an important and key recommendation but those impacted by parental incarceration urge policymakers to advocate for research that looks at the many variations in life circumstances for these families and not to limit research only to those known to public systems.

“Research needs to look at what is working within families that are coping well and not just what is breaking down.” ~ Adult child of incarcerated father

Program evaluation was viewed as an essential component to a policy agenda. The consumer perspective on this recommendation was simply to insure that a variety of programs be evaluated for efficacy and that biases against maintaining connections between children and their incarcerated parents not influence funding and policy decisions about what types of programs get evaluated.

“Mentoring programs are great, but so are visiting programs that include transportation and counseling, and if we only evaluate mentoring programs-even if they show tremendous results-how do we know that the visiting programs wouldn’t yield the same or better child outcomes?” ~ Service Provider

Suggestions for additions to the CSG Recommendations related to research included:

Carefully evaluate the potential for research protocols to inadvertently cause harm:

  • increase stigma
  • decrease willingness to be honest
  • interfere with access to supports

“One study asked my child- “Did you ever wish you had a different parent?” Now, who hasn’t wished that? But for my child this increased upset, made him cry all night and wet the bed for the first time in 4 years. This type of question just isn’t right to ask children dealing with parents in prison.” ~ Caregiver of an 8-year old child of incarcerated mother.

  • Evaluate the effect of training (on the specific needs and concerns of children of the incarcerated) of program staff and volunteers on program effectiveness and child outcomes.
  • Conduct research on the unique challenges experienced by caregivers of children with a parent in prison, as well as the effectiveness of existing services designed to address these challenges.
  • Conduct studies ( not yet done) on the presence and role of trauma, stigma and shame in the lives of these families

Sharing of Information: Coordination across Service Systems:

The CSG Action Plan encourages collaboration between child welfare agencies, corrections, education and health and mental health services. In addition to insisting on recommending guidelines to ensure confidentiality, our focus group participants also expressed the need for more effective communication between corrections and families reinforcing the recommendation in the report to establish a navigator system across programs that are accessible to a broad array of caregivers in contact with the criminal justice system.

Support for Caregivers and Financial Barriers

All focus group members wholeheartedly supported recommendations to establish a federal policy that would permit kinship care agencies to serve families that are not in the child welfare system, identify promising examples of kinship navigator programs to disseminate to the field and analyze the impact of AFSA on children of incarcerated parents providing a more detailed definition of ASFA’s “reasonable efforts” requirement. It is difficult for caregivers of children of incarcerated parents to reach consensus on the issue of child support for incarcerated parents. The recommendation that incarceration not be considered “voluntary unemployment” or “abandonment” was not universally accepted. Caregivers who struggle to make ends meet are reluctant to agree to modifications of child support orders for parents in prison. Service providers however support this recommendation for incarcerated parents who lack the financial resources to provide economic support to their children while they are incarcerated and immediately upon reentry.

Evaluation of the three main issues commonly affecting the availability of state and federal benefits and income support for incarcerated parents and their children:

  1. Statutory bans that disqualify individuals with criminal records from eligibility;
  2. Restoration of eligibility upon release;
  3. Enrollment of individuals who did not previously receive benefits or income support.

These recommendations would impact most of those who participated in our focus groups and were supported and encouraged.

Minimizing Trauma:

  • Responses During a Parent’s Arrest

Implement training and protocols for actions to be taken before and during arrests at which children are present -especially arrests involving custodial parents or guardians – to minimize trauma as much as possible and sensitize arresting officers to the impact of trauma on child development.

The focus group participants raised issues related to parental arrest that were not covered in the report which focused primarily on responding to the placement needs of children when primary caregivers are arrested.

“We are less concerned about the placement protocols than the issue of(law enforcement) interrogating children about their parents whereabouts and activities and destroying children’s property in search of drugs in front of the child.”

Additionally, our focus groups that included law enforcement officers requested that recommendations related to responding to children at an arrest include language such as “…without compromising the integrity of the arrest or interfering with the safety of everyone involved.”

  • Parent-Child Interactions within Corrections

Engage courts to help reduce trauma or strain experienced by children as a result of parental incarceration by recommending that parents be incarcerated in proximity to their children, when appropriate, and suggesting that parents enroll in parenting classes and promote promising practices to eliminate barriers to contact between incarcerated parents and their children, when appropriate.

Those impacted by incarceration as well as service providers interviewed added to these recommendations the need to emphasize the role of corrections in developing family strengthening visiting policies and to recommend that the National Institute of Corrections provide cross-training for corrections staff and child welfare caseworkers and community agency staff to highlight the impact of incarceration on children and families, with the goal of mitigating existing tensions between corrections and child serving agencies.

The focus group participants also suggested that many parenting programs in Correctional Settings are adapted from parenting classes designed for non- incarcerated parents and strongly recommended that parenting programs in corrections be subject to “peer reviews” by formerly incarcerated parents before implementation to assure relevance to the population.


The process of discussing what helped those impacted by incarceration, what policies and practices created barriers and which policy recommendations would aid service providers in the implementation of promising practices confirmed much of what we, at the National Resource Center have heard and observed over many years. New ideas and perspectives were also brought to light. In every group, the reaction to the CSG Action Plan was one of true excitement and optimism.

“When I first heard of the Bill of Rights for Children of the Incarcerated, I thought-yeah, right, who they kidding? But with this report, it seems much more possible that I have some rights.” ~ 17 year old child of an incarcerated parent.

We eagerly await the next steps, moving toward federal legislation, while also recognizing these recommendations have value for state initiatives. Our work has been outlined. We are ready to move forward with the Council of State Governments to indeed improve responses to children of the incarcerated and their families.

A total of 79 distinct recommendations are offered. If enacted, they would reduce the harmful effects of incarceration on children of incarcerated parents. We commend the work of so many in the crafting of these recommendations, maintaining a non-partisan focus, and keeping the children as the centerpiece. And we say “Thank you.” to the Council of State Governments for taking on this challenge and succeeding so well. For those who have not seen the recommendations, go to

Importantly, the Council of State Governments had the support of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Open Society Institute of the Soros Foundation, and the PEW Charitable Trust for this initiative. We appreciate and support this effort and value CSG’s willingness to involve the National Resource Center of Family and Corrections in the process of moving toward the development of family strengthening policies and practices that support economic and familial security, and the reduction of stigma and trauma in the lives of these children and their families.