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Reuniting Young Children With Their Incarcerated Parents

by Julie Poehlmann-Tynan


Millions of U.S. children are separated from a parent each year because of parental incarceration in prison or jail. The vast majority of people who go to jail or prison will be released eventually, making parental reentry and parent–child reunification a common process in families affected by incarceration. Despite the importance of the reentry period, few studies have focused on how young children cope when a parent returns from jail or prison. This article summarizes what little researchers know about children’s reunion with their parents following parental incarceration, parental experiences of reentry, and what can help children and families.

More young children in the United States, especially poor children of color, have a parent involved in the criminal justice system than ever before. By the time they are 14 years old, 5 million U.S. children will lose a resident parent to prison or jail, with most parental incarceration occurring when children are young (Murphey & Cooper, 2015). Although a growing body of research and intervention work focuses on children’s adjustment to enforced parent–child separation because of parental incarceration, little attention has been paid to children’s reunion with their parents or to children’s experiences of parental community supervision. This lack of information is particularly unfortunate because nearly everyone who goes to jail or prison eventually returns to the community (Travis, 2005). In 2016 alone, state and federal correctional facilities released 626,000 individuals (Carson, 2018); previous estimates indicated that most people incarcerated in state or federal prison are parents (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008). At year-end 2016, 874,800 people were on parole, or the conditional release of an individual into the community after incarceration while still under correctional supervision (Kaeble & Cowhig, 2018). In addition, more than 9 million individuals are admitted to and released from jails each year, with the majority being parents (Sawyer & Bertram, 2018; Zeng, 2019). In this article, I briefly summarize young children’s reactions to their parents’ incarceration, explore relevant research on parental reentry and reunification with children following incarceration, and present what little researchers know about children’s responses to reunion with reentering parents. I conclude with suggestions for helping children and families during the reunion period.

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