Effects of Parental
Incarceration on Families

Parent-child relationships

Children with incarcerated parents are at risk for insecure attachment patterns. According to Bowlby & Ainsworth’s attachment theory, children use their caregivers as a secure base from which they can explore their surroundings and seek security and protection (Sick Kids, 2010).  Secure attachment requires the caregiver to be responsive and sensitive to their needs. Incarceration removes the parent from the home and that weakens the attachment bond, even in situations where the parent-child dyad was previously secure.

There has not been significant research on the topic of attachment patterns and parental incarceration. However, there are obvious obstacles to secure attachment. First, even those committed to visits may have logistical difficulties getting there e.g., financial, distance (Denby, 2012). Second, parents may feel ashamed of circumstances and or another family member believes it will be too traumatic (Denby, 2012). Third, the stigma around incarceration may negatively impact children’s representation of the incarcerated parent (Denby, 2012). Beyond attachment, the overall parent-child relationship is at risk as children are raised by alternative caregivers, and by virtue, common experiences and milestones are missed. Furthermore, parental incarceration reduces household income and can sometimes push families into poverty, especially if the incarcerated parent was the main earner.

Kinship Care whenever possible children are placed with a family member. It is believed that positive kinship arrangements provide a stable environment, foster warmth, and acceptance (Denby,2012). An optimal outcome is that children may form a secure attachment with their caregiver in the absence of a parent.

Foster system Too many children fall into the foster care system and some even permanently severed from their incarcerated parents. In Canada, Aboriginal children are overrepresented in both the prison and foster care system, approximately 52.2% of children under 14 yrs (Government of Canada, 2020).

Mother-baby programs are designed to allow infants and sometimes young children to live in correctional facilities with their mothers. These programs are highly controversial but proponents of the program believe there are some attachment benefits. Correctional Service Canada runs Mother-Child Program, which is a small program for children (0- 6 years), with limited capacity and strict eligibility requirements (Correctional Service Canada, 2020).