Children's health is jeopardized when they have a parent in prison, new research finds.
In the United States, 5 million kids have an incarcerated parent. Those children have worse access to primary, dental and mental health care than their peers, the investigators found.
And that puts the kids at risk of worse mental and physical health outcomes, according to the study.
“Exposure to parental incarceration is a key adverse childhood experience with physical and mental health impacts across the course of the lives of these kids,” said Dr. Nia Heard-Garris from Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago.
“They are exposed to nearly five times as many adverse childhood experiences as their peers, and we know that is also unfortunately associated with increased incidence of learning and developmental disabilities, physical health conditions, and mental health conditions in adulthood,” Heard-Garris added in a hospital news release.
This situation disproportionately affects children who are Black, poor and live in rural areas, the findings showed.
For the study, the researchers used data from the 2019 National Health Interview Survey to assess the association of parental incarceration with health care access and usage among children aged 2 to 17 years.
Of just over 7,400 individuals, 467 experienced a parent in jail or prison. Adjusting the findings to produce national estimates, the researchers determined that exposure to parental incarceration was associated with an additional 2.2 million children lacking a usual source of care, 2 million with forgone dental care needs and 1.2 million with delayed mental health care needs. About 865,000 had forgone mental health care needs.
The findings held even after the researchers accounted for income, insurance status and living in rural areas.
“While children and adolescents are living with their other parent or caregiver, parental incarceration can disrupt access to care for them through the loss of health insurance and fewer caregivers to help with responsibilities like routine health care visits,” said study co-author Dr. Tyler Winkelman from Hennepin Healthcare, in Minneapolis.
A variety of interventions are needed, including clinical screening tools, institutional efforts to support families and communities affected by incarceration, and policy changes to improve access to care, the study authors said.
Jails and prisons could make a difference by training staff on the impact of parental incarceration on children and families, the researchers suggested. They could assess parental needs at intake, link families to community resources, support family-friendly visits between parents and their children, and also support systems that affect the children, including schools.
Parent management training programs could help, the research team added, as could including caregivers and children in re-entry planning.
The findings were recently published online in Academic Pediatrics.
The U.S. National Institute of Corrections has more on the children of incarcerated parents.
SOURCE: Ann & Robert Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago, news release, Nov. 15, 2022