Invisible Children-What Happens to the Children of Detainees?

I visit undocumented mothers in detention. During my conversations with them-One constant worry is shared, the welfare of their children while they are detained. It is difficult to parent children from jail. Incarceration makes it nearly impossible, and the charge to make a phone call to check on the family, makes it just about prohibitive.

Ending Predatory Prison Phone Rates Archives-National Hispanic Media Coalition

A child’s life is turned upside down when a parent is detained. Not only is a child’s main source of nurturance and support removed, but the detention of a parent is usually followed by a sudden move, the loss of the only home they know, including possessions, the family car, pets, and the painful separation from siblings. Following detention, children of detainees are usually shuffled into extended families, neighbors, or comadres’ overcrowded homes.

Many times, the instant caretakers have large families of their own and are already struggling financially. Comadres are like godmothers, dear, trusted family friends who are there to exchange favorcitos-little and big favors-in time of need. In case of a crisis, a comadre can be expected to step up and assume a family leadership role. But in conversations with comadres, I have learned that the bond between mother and comadre can turn antagonistic while a mother is in jail. There are the different rules for the kids; mom calls from jail and gives permission for an outing-a comadre doesn’t agree and overrules it. Mom says she left the comadre money to take kids out for fast food. The comadre says that money was needed for a new pair shoes. Comadres ask for a power of attorney so that they may discuss the child with teachers, purchase airline tickets for them, and make major decisions for these children. Mothers fear that signing the papers means handing over control over their children’s lives. Deciding when, how and if this document should be signed is often a source of contention. By the time of release, many parent-caretaker relations have been strained to the point of no repair. Children get caught in the middle of these disagreements, and there are few alternatives.

However, these are the lucky children. For many others, there are no comadres. Only far off relatives they have never met. Sometimes, the incarceration of a parent for a family without local extended networks, means, that children of detainees can be sent to live with abuelos in Mexico, a country they’ve only heard off, and which is totally foreign to American-raised children. For many, abuelos are relatives they’ve heard off but have no relationship with. Other children are sent to foster care. In other challenging circumstances for the children, dad gets a new girlfriend right after mom goes into detention. The new girlfriend moves in, and dad stops visiting mom. I  have been told of cases when dad starts dating mom’s best friend or a family friend. This, of course, is especially painful.

All children with a parent in jail suffer. Children with undocumented parents in jail, have their own set of challenges. Fears surrounding the immigration status of their parents, the caretakers, or their own, prevents many of them from asking for help. This group of children is in great need of support.


Few Resources Exist to Help Children with Parents in Prison. Resolutions, such as the one below, are being examined to assist children of incarcerated parents. Children of Detainees, need legal advocacy as well. 

This past June, Representative Andre Carson [D-IN7] sponsored Bill H.Res. 322, recognizing the importance of providing services to children of incarcerated parents. The bill observes that children who are growing up with one or both parents in prison face unique challenges. More resources and services are needed to target the specific needs of children of incarcerated parents in order to reduce the cycle of families in the criminal justice system.

The bill calls for the need for in-depth research on the topic, and the urgent need for the building of community partnerships to provide a comprehensive plan to meet the needs of individual children struggling to balance the pressures of academic, social, and economic stability while a parent is incarcerated. While the bill highlights that research and community partnerships are needed to help children of prisoners, the platform proposed by the bill can also be used to assess the need of resources to support the children of detainees.

What is at Stake if Nothing is Done to Help these Children:

Unsupported, these children can experience emotional trauma, failure in school, delinquency, drug and alcohol abuse, and risk of incarceration. Their mental health and future employment can also be affected.  This group is also at higher risk of experiencing other traumas, such as neglect and domestic violence.

How Are Children Affected and What type of Help do they Need:

According to the bill, an estimated 2,000,000 to 5,000,000 children have a parent in State or Federal prison, yet few resources exist to support young children and families coping with this life-changing circumstance. It is unknown how many children of detainees are similarly affected.

What types of Symptoms do Children of Incarcerated Parents Exhibit?

  • Fear
  • Sadness
  • Loneliness
  • Guilt
  • Low self‐esteem
  • Depression
  • Emotional withdrawal from friends and family
  • Separation anxiety and fears of abandonment
  • Eating and sleeping disorders
  • Anxiety
  • Attention disorders and developmental regression
  • Physical aggression
  • Withdrawal
  • Acting out
  • Academic and classroom behavior difficulties
  • Truancy
  • Self‐medication or misuse of alcohol of drugs

Support is Needed In The Following Areas:

  • Expressing emotions related to the absent parent
  • Coping strategies
  • Academic support
  • Summer programs focused on self-esteem, fun, physical activities, college preparation
  • Behavioral guidance
  • Great need for mentors, trained teachers, and skilled counselors.
  • Need to feel comforted and secure during a difficult time.
  • A chance to express these feelings and learn to cope with them
  • A busy schedule with healthy activities
  • People who can help them to maintain contact with their parent
  • Supportive After School programs


Law Enforcement training is also needed so that arrests consider the emotional well-being of children. The traumatic experience of a sudden separation from their primary caregiver evokes vulnerable feelings of anxiety, anger, depression, and guilt.  Children can be traumatized by witnessing a violent arrest. Training law enforcement in compassion and consideration for the children would alleviate some of the pain.


Using Technology to Parent from Jail

The bill also supports research into the use of technology to explore alternative means for communicating with the goal of maintaining bonds between incarcerated parents and their children.


Families with incarceration histories-whether inmates or detainees-Engage Multiple Social Service Systems. Children of Detained Parents, Have Their Own Unique Needs.  

The challenge of Accessing help:

  • Mothers or fathers in detention have little access to these services. In conversation with a volunteer visitor they may share their many concerns regarding their children’s welfare and the many unmet needs.
  • They may also share that their children’s caretaker is overwhelmed with keeping up with their own children plus the new children under their care.
  • Caretakers may not know or have the time to determine the kind of interventions that each of these children needs.
  • There is a great need for resources that could be shared with mothers and fathers in detention, and with caretakers to help them better care for the mental, emotional, health and academic welfare of the children.

The Next Frontier:

As visitation programs grow and tackle the related issues affecting families with loved ones in detention, there is a growing need to develop and fight for policies that support children of the detained and their rights.

A starting point is to find and develop community partnerships with nonprofits, after school and summer programs, health care facilities, food banks, foundations and legislators. Identifying outside resources is a first step.

Most caregivers will need information about services in the community that are often fragmented, are unavailable or costly. They will also need relief from care-taking duties.

Championing the Cause of Children with Parents in Detention.

Visitation programs for detainees are doing tremendous work in helping detainees cope with the isolation and the emotional difficulties of life in detention. Help is also needed in creating databases of local resources available to be shared with parents in detention and with their children’s caretakers. Developing a resource bank and making it available to these families would help them with the research for resources that many either can’t do or don’t have the time to do.

Many families do not seek services because they are scared or intimidated by their immigrant status; there may be a language barrier, lack of information of where to turn, or a feeling of confusion over how to sign up for services. Connecting them with a range of social and support activities that they can make available to support their children through their grief could be a helpful start.

Advocacy could include the following, as inspired by the Service Network of Children of Prisoners.

  • Creating a dialogue with the public
  • Using social media to share information about critical issues impacting children of detained parents and the programs that are helping the cause.
  • Inform and enlist the help of service providers, school counselors, physicians, and clinicians, after care staff, mentors and volunteers.
  • Intake needs and identify resources that could help. Provide outreach efforts.
  • Converse with local and national media to explain the issues affecting these children.
  • Meet regularly with stakeholders.
  • Help enroll children in various supporting programs.
  • Create a data list or referral list of local resources. Organize resources according to categories of need. Develop a comprehensive directory of agencies and service programs.
  • Include: After School, Counseling, Education, Health, Mentoring services, Summer programs, Holiday programs.


Programs, like, Sesame Street have developed helpful videos and tips for parents who are incarcerated and for their children. Below, is why.

The incarceration of a loved one can be very overwhelming for both children and caregivers. It can bring about big changes and transitions. In simple everyday ways, you can comfort your child and guide her through these tough moments. With your love and support she can get through anything that comes her way. Here are some tools to help you with the changes your child is going through.” The tool kit and videos are also in Spanish.


As we contemplate ways to help children of detainees, here is food for thought:

In 2003 the San Francisco Partnership for Incarcerated Parents published the following Bill of Right for children of incarcerated parents. The Bill of Rights recognizes that children’s needs extend well beyond physical comfort and security. This bill of rights is based on work originally done by Gretchen Newby of Friends Outside, a California organization that addresses the special needs of families affected by incarceration. The following are excerpted from Children of Incarcerated Parents: A Bill of Rights.”

Children of Incarcerated Parents’ Bill of Rights

  1. I have the right to be kept safe and informed at the time of my parent’s arrest.
  2. I have the right to be heard when decisions are made about me.
  3. I have the right to be considered when decisions are made about my parent.
  4. I have the right to be well cared for in my parent’s absence.
  5. I have the right to speak with, see and touch my parent.
  6. I have the right to support as I face my parent’s incarceration.
  7. I have the right not to be judged, blamed or labeled because my parent is incarcerated.
  8. I have the right to a lifelong relationship with my parent.




One thought on “Invisible Children-What Happens to the Children of Detainees?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: