Five Things About Youth Who Have Had an Incarcerated Parent

2/9/16 by Julie Atella

​If you work with youth in Minnesota, it’s likely you are working with people who have been affected by parental incarceration, even if you do not realize it. Data from the 2013 Minnesota Student Survey reveal some important considerations about youth who have had a parent in jail or prison. Here are five things you should know:  

1. It’s more common than you may think.

In Minnesota, at least 1 in 6 youth are affected by parental incarceration. National data show 5 million - or 1 in 14 youth - are affected by parental incarceration (National Children's Study). There are more youth who have experienced the incarceration of their parent than the number of youth who have juvenile diabetes and autism combined.

2. A disproportionate number of youth of color are affected.

Youth of color experience parental incarceration at rates up to four times higher than white youth. People of color are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. Research points to many causes, including inequitable distribution of resources and bias within policies and practices, indicating that systemic issues play an important role in intergenerational cycles of incarceration.

3. Academic success is negatively impacted.

Youth affected by parental incarceration report less academic success, including lower attendance and grades and more discipline issues, than youth who have not experienced the incarceration of their parent. For example, students with an incarcerated parent were four times more likely to report discipline issues than their peers who have never had an incarcerated parent.

4. Youth report more chemical health problems.

Youth who have or have had an incarcerated parent report more frequent use of tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana than youth who have not experienced parental incarceration. These youth were also 4 to 11 times more likely to have received treatment for substance use or abuse in the past 12 months than youth who have not experienced parental incarceration. Affected youth were also more likely to have missed school or work in the past 12 months because of alcohol or drug use.

5. Mental health is also affected.

Youth also have higher rates of mental health indicators. For example, youth affected by incarceration were two to three times more likely to report internalizing problems such as depression, trouble sleeping, anxiousness, or wanting to end their life.

What’s next?

The Strengthening Families Affected by Incarceration (SFAI) collaborative is working to inform and improve practices and policies that address the needs of families affected by incarceration in Minnesota. Over the last year, SFAI held a series of forums for members of the community to explore these new findings and discuss how we can better serve families impacted by incarceration. We continue to work together to collect and analyze data, discuss additional data needs, explore new data collection methodologies, and develop recommendations for policies and practices.