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Exploring Early Care and Education Policy for Young Children of Incarcerated Parents

Harriet Dichter, Karen Ruprecht, and Angela Tomlin

Abstract

Children of incarcerated parents may face an increased risk for developmental and behavioral problems. Early care and education can play a positive role in addressing these risks and providing positive support. However, these children are largely hidden when it comes to formal early care and education policy and program initiatives. This article will focus on the impacts of parental incarceration on young children, consider trends and opportunities in early care and education policy that can help address the needs of children of incarcerated parents, and provide suggestions for future policy strategies.

In the United States, 5% of children under 6 years old will experience parental incarceration (Burnson & Weymouth, 2019; Murphey & Cooper, 2015). Research has shown that children of incarcerated parents are more likely to have other risks such as exposure to substance abuse, mental illness, child abuse, and violence in the household that may increase their engagement in early childhood services such as early intervention, home visiting services, or child protective services (Turney, 2018). Although some research has focused on the impact of incarceration on children’s development, policymakers need more information about this population in order to craft effective policies to support them. Many of these children are likely to participate in the early care and education (ECE) system, defined here as child care, pre-kindergarten, or Early Head Start and Head Start programs, making this a ripe area for policy development.

Despite the large numbers of children affected by parental incarceration, these children are largely hidden when it comes to formal ECE policy and program initiatives. Although one study has attempted to uncover the number of preschool children served in formal care arrangements (Ruprecht, Tomlin, Perkins, & Viehweg, this issue, p. 41), much remains unknown about this population and a more proactive approach from policymakers interested in ECE is needed to effectively address this population of children. Given the likelihood that large numbers of affected children participate in ECE programs, these systems offer an important opportunity to positively affect the lives of young children of incarcerated parents. This article will focus on the impacts of parental incarceration on young children, consider trends and opportunities in ECE policy that can help address the needs of children of incarcerated parents, and provide suggestions for future policy strategies.

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