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Parent–Child Separation Due to Incarceration: Assessment, Diagnosis, and Treatment Considerations

by Elesia N. Hines Shannon L. Thompson, Michelle B. Moore, Amy B. Dickson, and Kristin L. Callahan


Decades of research and clinical observations have demonstrated the harmful effects of parent–child separation on children’s short- and long-term well-being (Society for Research in Child Development, 2018). Young children may be separated from their parents due to a variety of circumstances. This article provides recommendations for the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of young children who experience trauma as a result of being separated from their parent due to incarceration. An example of a multidisciplinary health care clinic is highlighted to demonstrate how clinicians and community partners work together to provide evaluation and care coordination services for children in foster care.

Being separated from a parent can have devastating effects on a young child. Even in necessary conditions (e.g., removal from a parent due to maltreatment), separating children from their parents is an adverse childhood experience that poses certain risks to the child, including trauma and toxic stress (Mackenzie, Bosk, & Zeanah, 2017; Miller, 2006). Young children especially rely on their parents to act as a buffer during stressful times. Thus, when a child is separated from their parent, the child experiences a high level of stress but has lost the protection provided by the attachment relationship. Behavioral challenges and emotional problems, including anxiety, depression, and symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder may arise. Experiencing chronic stress and trauma as a young child can also have an impact on brain development and cause prolonged activation of the body’s stress response system (Shonkoff et al., 2012).

Circumstances under which children experience parental incarceration vary greatly; therefore, understanding the context of the incarceration is extremely important. Even before the parent is incarcerated, the arrest of the parent can cause children to be traumatized, as they are often shocked, confused, and frightened by the experience. Arrests happen spontaneously and can look violent to a young child. There may be yelling, crying, and distress on the part of the caregivers, who are often focused on the arrested parent and not on shielding the young child from the arrest. In the immediate aftermath of the event, young children may remain unattended to emotionally, and at times physically, as the remaining adults seek to understand what has just happened and what to do next (Lieberman & Bucio, 2018). Determining what the child actively experienced (e.g., what they heard and saw during the arrest) or did not experience (e.g., having a parent removed from the home out of sight of the child) is clinically relevant.

Parental incarceration causes numerous losses for a young child, far more than just the experience of missing a parent. Following an incarceration, families are often strained financially (Wakefield & Wildeman, 2018). The incarcerated parent may have been a single parent, resulting in the child being abruptly placed out of their home, perhaps with caregivers not well known to the child, or a complete stranger such as a foster parent. It is often difficult for a young child to maintain a relationship with their incarcerated parent. Sometimes the arrested parent is imprisoned at a distance too far for the family to travel. Visitations with the parent may require a full day of travel for the child, and often prisons are scary places for young children. Children may wait for long periods of time in less-than-ideal crowded settings not conducive to play or nurturing care, only to see their parent for just a short time and often through glass. When visitation is not possible, the parent may be permitted to make phone calls, but young children often have difficulty connecting with their caregiver over the telephone. Hence the bond with the incarcerated parent is abruptly disrupted. Very young children have not yet achieved object permanence, which leads to a true loss of the relationship as the child does not remember the incarcerated parent over time. Abrupt loss of one caregiver can lead the child to have constant anxiety that other caregivers will suddenly disappear. This anxiety can cause insecure attachment in young children (Briggs-Gowan et al., 2019; Parke & Clarke-Stewart, 2001) and difficulty bonding to the caregiver upon their release from prison or to bonding with their current caregiver.

Young children rely on their parents to act as a buffer during stressful times.

Children who have developed focused or selective attachment, meaning they have developed a special preference for a single attachment figure (Weinfield, Sroufe, Egeland, & Carlson, 2008), remember their parents and are confused by the loss, grieving the missing parent and wondering what happened to them. Depending on the child’s developmental level and lack of familial transparency regarding the arrest and incarceration, the child may feel that the parent abandoned them or that they caused their parent’s absence. This traumatic experience can result in depression, clinginess, new fears, and regression in behaviors. The child may be placed with a caregiver who does not mention the missing parent, as members of many cultures experience shame when a family member is incarcerated. In essence, it is as if the caregiver is truly gone due to both the physical loss as well as the lack of any acknowledgment about the caregiver for the child. This loss is compounded when the remaining caregiver does not recognize the emotional impact on the child. Homes in which a parent becomes incarcerated are often already multiply stressed and cannot afford more disruption. Young children require stability, consistency, and a sense of felt safety to grow and thrive, and parental incarceration disrupts all of these to the child’s detriment.

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