Family & Corrections Network


The Fifth North American Conference on the Family & Corrections




by Denise Johnston, M.D.

Presented at the

Fifth North American Conference on the Family & Corrections

September 15, 1998 - Bethesda, Maryland

In our work at the Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents, we often say that there has been little research on children of offenders. In fact, this is not strictly true. There is a modest amount of research concerning these children reported in the scholarly literature.

Review of the Historical Literature

In 1912, Breckinridge & Abbott described children of criminals living in the Chicago slums, noting their increased propensity to become criminal themselves. The Gluecks (1950), in the second, third and fourth decades of this century, conducted their comprehensive examination of juvenile delinquency which included the finding that parental criminality was a predictor of juvenile crime.

In 1946, Otterstrom found that juvenile recidivism was directly associated with parental crime and incarceration. Throughout the 1950's and 1960's, the McCords (1958, 1977) continued to focus on the child outcomes of parental dysfunction, including parental criminality. During the next two decades, several studies (Blumstein,, 1986; Robins, 1979; Robins, West & Herjanic, 1965) demonstrated that "antisocial and criminal parents have criminal and violent sons" (Raine, 1993, 245).

A later series of adoption studies attempted to delineate the differing strengths of genetic and environmental influences on criminal behavior. The largest of these studies to measure intergenerational criminal behavior were conducted in Europe:

Bohman and his group (1982), including Cloninger, (1982) and Sigvardson, (1982), reported findings from a large-scale Swedish adoption study that examined criminal behavior of children born to criminal parents but reared by adoptive parents.

Reporting on a Danish adoption study that utilized a "cross-fostering" paradigm, in which criminality is measured among natural and adopted offspring and natural and adoptive parents, Baker and his group (1986) and Mednick, (1984) agreed that there were heritable influences for recidivistic, nonviolent crime.

Virtually all of this work was conducted with the intent of identifying predictors of juvenile delinquency and adult crime. The focus of these studies was neither the children nor the quality of their lives.

Advocacy Research

Beginning about 20 years ago, another type of research on children of offenders emerged. Influenced by both the women's movement and the burgeoning numbers of female offenders in the US, these studies were conducted by women investigators on the children of women prisoners.

These women had a new perspective on children of offenders, one which focused on the children's experience, regardless of their delinquency or potential criminality. The result was a small body of literature which examined children of incarcerated women from their mothers' point of view. Naturally, this literature was most often concerned with parent-child separation.

The seminal study in this body of work was conducted by Brenda McGowan and Karen Blumenthal of Columbia University. The Children's Defense Fund published their landmark, 1978 study of the children of women prisoners. In an effort that will probably never be duplicated, McGowan and Blumenthal surveyed a majority of all women incarcerated in the United States. Like the studies of Phyllis Jo Baunach (1978), Zelma Henriques (1982) and others (Frisch & Burkhart, 1982; Koban, 1983; Sack, Seidler & Thomas, 1976) that followed/ McGowan and Blumenthal's research described children of offenders with information obtained by surveying their parents.

This remains an invaluable body of work. - But the limitations imposed by its methodology continue to confound us. While earlier quantitative research and contemporary adoption studies only investigated children of offenders who were themselves delinquent or criminal, the more recent and arguably more valuable qualitative research only accessed the children through their parents who were incarcerated.

The inability to identify and examine children of offenders independently of the location of their parents, and the inability to study these children as index subjects of research rather than as adjuncts of their parents, has severely restricted what we know about them. For example, we have no methodology for accurately measuring the number of children of criminal offenders in the US or any of its jurisdictions.

We know to a great deal of certainty, from large-scale national studies, that about three quarters of incarcerated women are mothers who have an average of 2.4 dependent children each (Baunach, 1978; Glick & Neto, 1977; McGowan & Blumenthal, 1978; Task Force on the Female Offender, 1990; US Department of justice, 1993). However, we know to a much less degree of certainty that about 60% of all incarcerated men are fathers with an average of 2.0 dependent children each (US Department of justice, 1993).

These figures have allowed us to make reasonable estimates of the number of children of prisoners in any correctional setting. But as we extrapolate to populations of offenders under community supervision, the formula becomes much less accurate, since an offender's family circumstances and responsibilities are often factors in sentencing and parole decisions. And, any attempt to use this formula to estimate the number of children of offenders who are not under any form of correctional supervision is little more than an informed guess.

Even as the number of arrested and incarcerated persons in the US has grown dramatically, leading to increased attention to these once-ignored children, we have had no reliably representative data that describes them. Although the data produced by McGowan and Blumenthal was statistically reliable and the study population clearly representative of the larger group, the topics they investigated in their national survey were extremely limited. The component of their study conducted an a local women's jail covered a broader range of topics in more detail; however, the small group of women who were surveyed were self-selected and there was no effort to compare them to other women inmates in the facility to determine the degree to which they were representative of that population.

Researchers in this area have consistently had problems accessing representative study populations of sufficient size. Studies by Henriques (1982) and Sack, Seidler & Thomas in 1976, for example, surveyed very small samples of incarcerated parents or children's caregivers. Bloom and Steinhart (1993) and the Prison Visitation Project (1993) surveyed significant proportions of their target populations, but study participants were self-selected. In spite of those limitations, these studies produced data which supported the perception of advocates (Bakker, 1978; Barry, 1985; Fishman, 1982) that children of prisoners have few resources and are often troubled by emotional and behavioral reactions to separation from their parents.

Finally, access to the children themselves has been virtually impossible. Only a handful of studies conducted prior to this decade directly interviewed, tested or otherwise examined children of offenders in any way:

In 1977, William Sack studied a small sample of behaviorally disordered, psychiatric clinic patients who also happened to be the children of prisoners.

In 1980, Ann Stanton examined 118 children of jailed mothers in an excellent study that compared them to 48 children of mothers on probation in demographic characteristics, educational performance and legal socialization.

In 1990, Gabel and Shindeckler studied a clinical sample of 15 abused and molested youth in a day treatment program.

In each of these cases, the subjects were defined as "children of incarcerated parents" although the populations were very different.

Program Research

Ultimately, the largest body of research relating to children of incarcerated parents will probably turn out to be program reports and evaluations. Some of this literature evaluates services for incarcerated parents or prisoners and their children (Bayse, 1991 ; Browne, 19 89; Glasser, 1990; Landreth & Lobaugh, 1998) but most simply describes service programs.

(Blinn, 1997; Cannings, 1990; Gabel & Girard, 1995; Johnston, 1995b; Vacchio, 1991; Weilerstein, 1995).

The information contained in these studies is invaluable for practitioners. But by its nature, program research can only provide data on highly selected sub-groups of the target population. Without broader population profiles to which study groups can be compared,

this type of research is of limited use in describing the status and needs of children of incarcerated parents.

The Developmental Perspective of the Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents

One of the purposes for which our Center was founded was to increase the amount of high quality documentation on children of criminal offenders. We began by creating the simple formula now used to estimate the number of dependent children of any correctional population. However, our major task has been to describe the life experience and characteristics of this population of children. We believe that, like all work with children, this work requires both scientific rigor and a developmental perspective.

Research at the Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents has been conducted along several tracks:

1.Intergenerational Trauma, Crime & Incarceration

In 1990, we conducted the jailed Mothers Study Johnston, 1995c), which surveyed 100 out of 114 mothers incarcerated at the Robert Presley Detention Center in Riverside County.

While the study provided one of the few, if not the only, comprehensive descriptions of jailed mothers, its purpose was to begin an examination of the factors that contributed to intergenerational crime. We found significant levels of intergenerational trauma, victimization and substance dependency among our subjects. However, one of the most important findings of the study was that 10% of the adult and minor children (mean age about 10 years) of the women surveyed had themselves been jailed or imprisoned. Nationally, the lifetime risk of imprisonment by age 65 is 9.8% (USDO], 1997). It is unlikely that there is any other group of children in the US who-experience a greater level of risk for incarceration than children of prisoners.

As part of this research track, we are conducting a study on substance-dependent parents and their children. This investigation, which began in 1993, continues to produce data which supports a relationship between childhood trauma and criminal offending.

2.The Lives of Children of Offenders

In 1991, we began to study children of offenders in the communities in which they live. Through 16 of the more than 36 direct service and research projects we have conducted since 1990, we have gathered data on children from the prenatal period through age 18. Most of these children have received a comprehensive assessment that includes a parent and family history, a developmental history and assessment, a child interview with a clinical psychologist, home and classroom observations, standardized measurements of home and

classroom behavior, standardized measurements of self-concept and locus of control, and a review of the child's academic, medical and mental health records.

The first two years of our investigation among early adolescents produced the Children of Offenders Study Johnston, 1992). That study, which is also reported in our book "Children of Incarcerated Parents", identified three characteristics of children of offenders which distinguish them from their classmates and neighborhood peers: 1) childhood trauma, 2) lack of family support, largely due to parent-child separations, and 3) an inadequate quality of care, largely due to poverty. Children of offenders who appeared most likely to enter the criminal justice system could be distinguished from their siblings by enduring trauma. the experience of recurrent episodes of multiple types of trauma throughout their lifetime Johnston & Carlin, 1996).

This activity also clarified for us the importance of a developmental analysis of data on this population. We believe that both childhood trauma and criminal behavior can only be understood as developmental processes. This understanding requires a thorough grounding in the discipline of child development. Lack of expertise in this area has profoundly limited researchers and service providers working in the criminal justice arena.

We continue to struggle with the difficult of identifying representative samples of children for research. Our studies of children of criminal offenders are conducted in high-crime communities, on kids who have been referred to our Therapeutic Intervention Project for classroom behavior and disciplinary problems, their siblings and child members of their extended families. This is not a randomly-selected group of children. We qualify our findings by saying that we study the children of offenders who appear to be most likely to enter the criminal justice system themselves. This project, which has been expanded to include children ages 4-14, is now in its seventh year.

3.Children and Parents in Correctional Settings

We have conducted a series of research projects in this area:

In 1991, we began with a study of parent-child contact visitation programs in California county jails Johnston, 1991). That study found that less than 0.01 % of the children of California jail inmates were able to participate in these highly-touted programs.

In 1993, with the assistance of Centerforce, we conducted a study of children's behavioral reactions to parent-child visitation in prisons Johnston, 1995e). We found that behavioral reactions are common, transient and most likely to occur among children who have previously lived with the parent they are visiting for more than six months.

In 1994, we conducted an examination of barrier visiting areas and visitor waiting rooms in California County jails Johnston, 1995d). This was an environmental study which examined the suitability of such areas for use by children. We found that only one waiting area and no barrier visiting rooms had been adapted for use by children, and we suggested modifications that would make these areas developmentally and environmentally appropriate for children.

4.?Reviews and Reports

Through our clearinghouse, we have also issued a series of reviews of the literature which examine topics such as incarcerated fathers, incarcerated mothers, intergenerational incarceration and skills for working with offenders and their families. Our other publications include reports from our service projects on client demographics, service needs and- service outcomes. For example, the preliminary report from our Child Custody Advocacy Services or CHICAS Project described the child custody needs of the 660 incarcerated parents who were clients of that project between January 1, 1990 and December 31, 1994 (Johnston, 1995a).

We also conduct evaluations of our services and of the services of other programs and agencies. Research in this area tends to be challenging for several reasons:

First, evaluation was not included in the project design of most existing programs of services for children of offenders. Most programs do not systematically collect the objective data that would make outcome evaluation possible.

Second, since the status of children of offenders has not been well-documented, agencies have found it difficult to generate appropriate short-term outcomes for small groups in local jurisdictions. Even where programs have achieved short-term outcomes (like increased literacy or improved self-esteem), the relationships between the characteristics of the children in the service population, service outcomes and the effects of parental incarceration have not been well-established.

Third, there is seldom agreement on other long-term goals or objectives for services to children of offenders. The single outcome for which there is general consensus-prevention of delinquency and criminality among children of offenders--requires sustained services and long-term follow-up which few agencies have been able to provide.

To our knowledge, there is no program of services for children of offenders in the United States which currently meets these criteria for adequate outcomes evaluation. But there are many newer programs in which evaluation is a critical component and which have made substantive efforts to define the variables that will influence their long-term outcomes. Their evaluation reports are eagerly awaited.

Much of the Center's research has been unfunded and conducted by formerly incarcerated persons. While we feel we have done a tremendous amount of work in nine years, we also recognize that we still face a monumental task in attempting to produce accurate information on all aspects of the lives of representative populations of children of offenders.

We invite you to join us in this work.


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