Kids in the Shadows


By Casey Coughlin

Ann Adalist-Estrin is the author of the Children of Prisoners Library as well as co-author of Responding to Children and Families of Prisoners: A Community Guide. She currently works for the Family and Corrections Network in Palmyra, Virginia, as a program consultant. As a child and family therapist with more than 30 years of experience, Adalist-Estrin has conducted more than 30,000 interviews with children of incarcerated parents. She was also the Founder and Director of Incarcerated Parents and Their Children- Consulting Services. For more information on Ann Adalist-Estrin and her work visit

COUGHLIN: What effects have you seen on children who have visited their parent in jail in relation to the visitation policies?

ESTRIN: Visiting parents in prison has three aspects to it. One is the normal childhood development aspect where the child is just a child who is going to spend time with a parent they don’t usually get to spend time with. In every other of those circumstances there are wonderful moments and then there are times when the feelings are charged.

Children of incarcerated parents are no different than other kids on that baseline.

The second aspect is specific and unique emotions and reactions to having a parent in prison; lack of trust, issues related to lying, the stigma, shame, and questions about the crime. So this second part is more about supporting the caregiver in being able to prepare the child for a visit and also help process the visit afterwards. The little bit of research we have indicates that visits can be hurtful if it is followed by a lot of high intensity distress. So in this second stage there is a lot of advocacy work in helping provide support for caregivers and helping to prepare the incarcerated parent themselves.

The third aspect of visiting is the fact that it is a prison. Kids having to deal with going through metal detectors, being searched and sitting in metal chairs facing their parent, only being allowed to shake hands or give a brief cursorily hello hug. Not being allowed to act in any way normal makes it very much different than other kids visiting in other situations. In this aspect the criminal justice system could provide better visiting environments, provide parenting classes that help the incarcerated parent, and provide materials that get sent home to the caregiver.

COUGHLIN: What sort of misconceptions do you feel the public has of children of incarcerated parents?

ESTRIN: A lot of intervention strategies are predicated on these notions that these kids are more likely than their peers to go to prison or jail. We don’t have any accurate research that says that. We know they are at risk for mental health issues, school difficulties, and trauma related behavioral patterns. So sometimes that can result in kids being involved in the criminal justice system. But to just say they are four of five times more likely than their peers to go to prison or jail is saying something very different. It’s interpreted by most people as they [the children] are following their parent’s footsteps or that there is something inherent that put them at risk and of course none of it is true.

It lends people to think that these are kids that are better off without their parents; we don’t know that to be true at all. In fact, what we do know is that most of these kids have caring adults in their lives, but they need more.

COUGHLIN: Is there something else that the community could be doing to support the population that is affected?

ESTRIN: Schools come to mind because teachers, districts and counselors can be incredibly helpful with the right kind of training and support. Teachers could do things like put it into the discussions. When you say things like ‘some of you have parents who are in the military and some of you have parents that live far away and some of you might even have parents that are in prison or jail,’ it normalizes the situation.

We will have resistance to that from some well meaning advocates. The resistance being if we normalize it, kids will start thinking there is nothing wrong with going to prison. I challenge that all the time because that was the thinking about divorce, nobody wanted to talk about it because they thought it might go away. But the mass incarceration issues in the U.S. are not going away. What the normalizing does is it makes children feel like they are not alone.

COUGHLIN: What do you think policy makers should know or be more focused in regards to this population?

ESTRIN: There are three times when the government separates children from parents. One is for abuse and neglect; all the states have guidelines on providing information to the foster parent or the kinship caregiver and to the biological parent. Information about attachment, child development and how to support this child through the process of separation is available. The second time the government separates is for military service. Department of defense has a whole array of materials that they send about maintaining the attachment and staying connected. And the third time the government separates kids and parents is through incarceration. There is no system in the government that sends anything to anybody. There is no uniform recommendation. So, the first policy should be to immediately look at which division of government could be responsible just for providing information.

COUGHLIN: What progressive policies have you seen throughout the country that you would like to see consistently in every state?

ESTRIN: New York is a beacon for a lot of policy. They have programs in their prisons that focus on parenting and great visiting programs. The state departments talk to each other. There are also mechanisms that are in place that help incarcerated parents understand their rights. New York also had a children’s cabinet that spearheaded a new report just published on Children of Incarcerated Parents that makes all kinds of state recommendations.

COUGHLIN: What is one of the most damaging policies/practices that you have seen or heard of in the country that you would like to see changed?

ESTRIN: One is arresting parents in front of children. I think in most circumstances officers can keep everybody safe, maintain the integrity of the arrest and still not violate the child’s right to not be traumatized. I have heard stories about law enforcement badgering children about where their parents are or where their parents have been or the names of parent’s friends. Ripping open beloved stuffed animals in front of the children looking for drugs. Things that I don’t think are necessary.

COUGHLIN: If you could express one opinion or one fact that gets overlooked by the general majority what would that be?

ESTRIN: There is likely to be a very large number of children that are suffering silently. They are probably doing okay in school, not causing any problems and they are just out there trying to struggle with this alone. Until we can set the stage nationally for this to be an issue that is less stigmatizing we are not doing our job. They are not going to come forward if that means being labeled. Those are the types of things that are keeping kids in the shadows. I want us to always remember the ones that we don’t know about.



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