Relative Caregivers Rock!

Posted: December 19, 2011

Adults who are caring for their relative’s children may have experience dealing with the prison system,others may be dealing with unanticipated challenges with regard to ensuring the physical and emotional health of the children in their care.

By Brenda Rich, Director of Quality and Training at Turning Points for Children

Many adults who are caring for their relative’s children already have experience dealing with the prison system. However, for many others this is a new experience, fraught with unanticipated challenges with regard to ensuring the physical and emotional health of the children in their care.

For several years, I have been privileged to conduct workshops for the Pennsylvania Council on Children, Youth and Families Services (PCCYFS) on “Working with Children of Incarcerated Parents.” In recent workshops, I invited Ann Schwartzman, from the Pennsylvania Prison Society, to share up-to-date statistics and challenges of persons having to deal with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

Did you know that….

  • As of December 2011, there are over 50,000 men and women incarcerated in Pennsylvania prisons, and at least another 32,000 prisoners in county jails?
  • Between 50-65% of persons who are incarcerated in Pennsylvania have children?
  • While children with incarcerated fathers typically live with their mothers, children with incarcerated mothers most often are living with grandparents or other relative caregivers?

Children who have a parent who is incarcerated, whether it is for a relatively short period or for a much longer time, share a number of critical impacts. The first is that children experience trauma associated with the arrest and incarceration, with the resulting immediate concerns of who will take care of the child and where they will live. Having a parent incarcerated also deeply impacts a child’s thoughts about themselves, as well as their ongoing relationship with their parent.

Arrests are typically made in the middle of the night, being the time most likely to find a person at home, in bed. For a child who wakes up to banging on the door and shouting, who then peeks out to see a parent handcuffed and powerless and taken out the door, causes trauma to the child on many different levels. The stress of the seeing violence, the viewing of the disparate power between parent and police, the immediate loss of the beloved parent can all have life changing implications. We may also recognize that if a parent was involved in drug activity or other criminal actions for a while prior to the arrest, the child may have already had exposure to other traumatic incidents.

If the adult being arrested is the only adult in the home, there may be a possibility of a child being overlooked by the arresting officers, and left frightened and alone. Or, if the parent calls the child to their attention, the police may immediately make arrangements to either take the child to be cared for by foster parents, or call on extended family to come and take care of the child. Certainly the best possible option is for family to immediately step up and take care of the child. However, even with the most loving and caring families, children may experience upheaval.
“Nicole” shared with me that when her mother was incarcerated, she and her teenage siblings took care of each other until their grandparent was able to make arrangements to move in with them. Other children may have to leave their home, neighborhood, or school to move in with relatives, and deal with the loss of the familiar friends and community, changed schedule, new sleeping arrangements, and new authorities.

The child experiences multiple emotions in all this transition. Perhaps it’s embarrassing for the family to talk openly about having a parent incarcerated. Perhaps the family devised “cover stories” of the whereabouts of the parent. Children may experience fear about whether their parent is okay. Children may be angry, and feel abandoned. They may long to hear from their parent that they are still loved.

Many families wrestle with the question of whether the child will be helped or hindered by communicating with their parent. According to Lois Wright and Cynthia Beatty Seymour, authors of “Working with Children and Families Separated by Incarceration” (CWLA Press, 2000), “Visitation is perhaps the most important mechanism for maintaining a positive parent-child relationship.” When a child visits a parent who is incarcerated, they can see that they are okay, they can ask how they are doing, they can tell them about what makes them sad or happy. The parent can help the caregiving relationship by encouraging the child to follow the caregiver’s rules. The child has a sense that the parent and caregiver are together ensuring that the child will be well cared for while the parent is away.

For further on-line information, check out the Family and Corrections Network at

Tips for Relative Caregivers of Children with Incarcerated Parents

  1. Check in with your child regarding those early experiences. Get to understand your own feelings about the crime, the incarceration, and the parent’s actions.
  2. Make a “map” with your child of where they used to live, where they live now, and who are all the important people in their life.
  3. Help your child develop positive ways to explain their current living situation; consider facilitating support groups for children in similar circumstances.
  4. Understand that parent-child visitation is the most important way to maintain positive parent-child relationships. Find additional ways to build relationships, e.g., through letter writing and having the parent make audio tapes of themselves reading children’s books.