Children of jailed parents face lifetime of health problems

Abbie Roth | For The Columbus Dispatch USA TODAY NETWORK

Do you know of children who have had an imprisoned parent? Statistically, if you know 20 kids, you could. The health effects of parental incarceration on children have been called a “hidden epidemic” by experts in the field.

Nationally, one in 14 youth in the United States will have an incarcerated parent at some point, according to a report by the National Survey on Children’s Health. For black youth it is one in 9; for white youth, one in 17. Locally, Ohio has the fifth highest population of children with incarcerated parents in the country.

Parental confinement is one of the adverse childhood experiences that has been shown to have a lifelong impact on health. While in some cases, such as when a parent is abused or potentially dangerous to the child, parental incarceration can have a positive effect, most research finds negative results associated with a parent’s incarceration.

Many of the effects of parental confinement that a child may experience fall into the category of ‘social drivers of health’. Social drivers of health include income, education, employment and systemic bias.

A child whose parent is incarcerated can enter the foster system or must move in with a family member. The family can lose income. That loss of income can lead to homelessness, housing and food insecurity. The child could be traumatized by witnessing a parent’s arrest at home. And children of incarcerated parents almost uniformly report feeling stressed, lonely, and stigmatized.

In a recent presentation, Samantha Boch, Ph.D., reported that in a chart review from one institution, 2% of children had a provider who documented a correction-related keyword such as prison, prison, parole, or probation in their medical records. These children constituted 50% of the stress-related disorders, trauma-related disorders and substance use-related disorders during the study period. Additionally, research shows that these children are at higher risk of poor health outcomes throughout their lives.

The research is clear: we have a problem. But what’s the answer?

Existing research into social drivers of health points us in the right direction. We know that reducing shame and stigmatization and increasing access to resources and support can dramatically improve the outcomes of mental illness, stress-related illness, and substance use disorders.

In the case of children with incarcerated parents, this can be achieved by placing resource information posters in school clinics or child practices. This could mean increasing screening for ACEs during well visits and associating families and social workers as needed.

It could be a public health campaign to encourage community support for families rather than community action. And it could mean increasing resources for jail terms and prison diversion programs that are known to be effective.

One of the things I like about pediatric research is that it’s not all about petri dishes and genomics and developing new therapies. Those things are amazing and life changing. But research is just as powerful as it teaches us about our humanity.

For a child with an incarcerated parent, can a difference in health outcomes be rooted in a community professional or other person who is willing to change the conversation? By exposing this “hidden epidemic”, we are taking the first steps to change the health pathway of these children.

Abbie Roth is Editor-in-Chief of Pediatrics Nationwide and Science Communication at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

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