Families Behind Bars

Parental Incarceration Overview

Parental Incarceration is increasingly responsible for toxic stress and trauma in children 0-6 years old. While criminal justice reform has been in recent headlines, we have not had a serious discussion about the fate of millions of children that are being left behind. 

The issue

In 2017-2018 there was an average of 38, 786 adults detained in provincial/territorial or federal custody per day in Canada (Statistics Canada, 2019). Many of these incarcerated individuals are parents, although the figure is unknown. In 2007 Correctional Service Canada, reported that 357, 604 or 4.6% of Canadian children had an incarcerated father. Furthermore, it is estimated that an estimated 20, 000 children are affected by maternal incarceration (Vanier Institute, 2017).

Behind these numbers are the children that have been left behind, and who are often experiencing toxic stress and or trauma.  

Parental incarceration puts children at risk for mental health issues, developmental issues and increases the likelihood of future encounters with the criminal justice system.

Statistics (CANADA/USA)

  • Globally there is almost 11 million people incarcerated (Prison Policy Initiative, 2020) and the impacts on children can be devastating. The United States hosts 20% of the world’s prison population (2.2 million) and 2 million American children have at least 1 parent incarcerated ( Morgan-Mullane, 2017). Much of the research on parental incarceration and its effects on children, families, and communities is based on the United States incarceration system.
  • In Canada, as the incarceration rates continue to decrease, the number of adults in remand has been increasing. From 2017-2018 there were 50% more adults in remand (14, 812) than were in provincial-territorial sentenced custody (9543) (Statistics Canada, 2019). Holding individuals in remand while awaiting trial, decreases the time that would be spent with their children. Often non-violent individuals remain in remand because they cannot afford the cost of bail.
  • According to the US Department of Justice 70% of children with incarcerated parents will also enter the juvenile and/or adult criminal justice system ( Morgan-Mullane, 2017)
  • 11% of children with incarcerated mothers go into foster care (Gaston, 2016)
  • In the USA, the increased rate of incarcerated mothers is responsible for the 30% increase of foster caseloads from 1985-2000 (Gaston, 2016)
  • Aboriginal adults represent 4% of the Canadian adult population but make up 30% of admissions to provincial/territorial custody and 29% admissions into federal custody (Statistics Canada, 2019).
  • In 2017-2018 correctional services cost the Canadian Government 3.4 billion dollars in expenditures  (Correctional Service Canada, 2019)
  • Aboriginal women make up 42% of total female admissions, while Aboriginal men make up 28% of total male admissions (Statistics Canada, 2019).
Key Terms

Toxic Stress: “refers to strong, frequent, or prolonged activation of the body’s stress management system.” (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2014).

Trauma : “an event or events that involve actual or threatened death or serious injury to the child or others, or a threat to the psychological or physical integrity of the child or others” (Summers & Chazan-Cohen, 2012 p. 80)  

Complex trauma: the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, defines complex trauma to “describes both children’s exposure to multiple traumatic events—often of an invasive, interpersonal nature—and the wide-ranging, long-term effects of this exposure. These events are severe and pervasive, such as abuse or profound neglect.” (The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 2021)

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs): “potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood (0-17 years)” (CDC, n.d).

Protective factors: individual or environmental characteristics that promote resilience despite significant challenges and or risk factors (Summers & Chazan-Cohen, 2012).

Resilience: refers to child’s ability to succeed despite adversity (Summers & Chazan-Cohen, 2012).