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Issue: 8.2: Spring 2010
Guest Edited by Megan Sullivan, Tanya Krupat and Venezia Michalsen
Children of Incarcerated Parents

Denise Johnston, "A Developmental Approach to Work with Children of Prisoners: Mother-Child Reunification"
(page 5 of 5)


The three intensive service projects described have produced the best outcomes of all Center services:

  • The MIRACLE Project was extremely successful. Outcomes included an increased rate of kinship placements among infants born during maternal incarceration, and post-release mother-child reunification in more than 90% of mothers released to the community. Mothers reunited with their infants following release demonstrated an increase in responsive parenting. Outcomes of pregnancy for MIRACLE participants included less than 2% congenital disabilities, low birth weight, prematurity, or neonatal hospitalization among participating infants. Among mothers released from incarceration, only 1% became pregnant again within 12 months of delivery of their first MIRACLE baby, less than 2% had their infant removed from their custody and placed in foster care, and less than 5% have been rearrested.

Johnston Photo 10
MIRACLE Mother Alana and her baby at a last visit before Alana's release.

  • Mother's Institute outcomes included post-services increases in objective knowledge of parenting, family life issues including sexual relationships and reproduction, family resources management and child development topics among 72-100% of participants. Other short-term outcomes included increased maternal utilization of community resources and decreased maternal stress. About half of all participating mothers elected to be released to residential, mother-child drug treatment programs. Most Institute mothers reunited with their children shortly after returning to the community; among Institute graduates who have been released from incarceration, 87% reunified with at least one child and 68% reunified with all of their children within three months of release. More than 91% of released Institute mothers remain in the community—including 82.6% who have completed parole and 8.7% who are still on parole. Only 8.7% of Institute participants have been rearrested.

  • Measurement of ChildSpace outcomes was difficult due to variable levels of participation. For example, the range of visits per family was one to 112. In addition, ChildSpace was utilized by the Child Protective Services to conduct Court-ordered visits for families prior to terminations of parental rights, making simple counts of mother-child reunification impossible. Outcomes for families that participated in two or more visits included a decrease in parenting stress among mothers; decreased perceived stress and increase in utilization of community resources by children's caregivers; and increases in positive maternal-child interactions in proportion to the number of family visits.

Johnston Photo 12
Michelle was reunited with her children following release from prison.

While the grants and contracts that supported these projects did not fund formal evaluations or allow measurement of long-term effects, the projects' short-term and intermediate-term successes suggest that the services rendered will significantly improve long-term outcomes for participating children.

A Developmental Approach to Working with Children of Incarcerated Parents

Over the last three decades, although little was known about their development, children of prisoners became recognized as a group with special needs arising from the current status of their parents. This focus obscured the nature of the challenges they face and the actual causes of their long-term outcomes, which have only recently begun to be identified by large-scale studies.

Taking a developmental approach throughout the same period, the Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents has applied the following research-based, child-focused principles to delivery of services in order to improve the outcomes of prisoners' children:

  • As with all children, the lives and outcomes of prisoners' children are determined by their experiences. Consequently, efforts to assist these children must begin with thorough assessments that explore and document their significant life experiences and their representations of those experiences.
  • To be effective in improving children's developmental outcomes, including the outcomes of prisoners' children, services must increase children's good experiences (developmental resources/supports) or decrease children's bad experiences (developmental insults), or both.
  • Outcomes for the large population of prisoners' children appear to be due to high levels of family stress, low levels of parental education and related unemployment/underemployment, parental mental illness, and/or parent substance dependency. All of these circumstances can be improved by appropriate services.
  • Development of the person is built, stage by stage, on the foundation laid down in previous stages. While on-going care and experiences are important in determining children's developmental outcomes, they are always built upon the experience of children's earliest care and their primary attachment relationships with parents and caregivers. As a result, services that are delivered early in the lives of prisoners' children and address their caregiving relationships will have the greatest effect on child development and child outcomes, including intergenerational crime and incarceration.

Playing with dolls during a ChildSpace visit, Bella says, "This one is the mommy doll. Her name is Natalia. This one is the baby doll, her name is Bella. They don't have a house yet, but they will."

Alyssa had a clean disciplinary record for 7 months prior to release, her longest period of good behavior in all four of her incarcerations. Adamant at enrollment in the Institute that she would be released to the home of her girlfriend, Alyssa instead entered a residential parole program that would allow her to have overnight visits with her children.

Natalia and Jasmine enrolled and excelled in the Mothers' Institute. They completed the basic Empowerment cycle of services, as well as Leadership and Advocacy cycles, over a period of 18 months. They subsequently became Peer Counselors for the Program. Exemplary prisoners with no disciplinary history in spite of extensive friendships with women who remain in the mix, Natalia and Jasmine have become effective parent models and advocates for other incarcerated mothers.

Dominique refused to be placed in a drug treatment program and returned home after her release. Two weeks later, she asked her parole officer for a placement. "I could see the difference in the twins, the way they related to me after I started using again. I could never see that with my others, but I guess I know these babies better because of ChildSpace."

Jasmine's son Derek says, "Me and my mom are doing good. We had bad things happen to us but we got over them. We're still a family."


1. A. Blumstein, J. Cohen, J. Roth, and C. Visher, Criminal Careers and "Career Criminals" (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1986); D. Johnston, Children of Jailed Mothers (Pasadena: The Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents, 1991); J. McCord, "A Comparative Study of Two Generations of Native Americans," in R.E. Meier, ed., Theory in Criminology (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1977); S. Otterstrom, "Juvenile Delinquency and Parental Criminality," ACTA Pediatrica Scandinavica 33.5 (1946): 1-326; L. N. Robins, "Sturdy Childhood Predictors of Adult Outcomes," in J.E. Barratt, R.M. Rose & G.L. Klerman, eds., Stress and Mental Disorder (New York: Raven Press, 1979); L.N. Robins, P.A. West, and B.L. Herjanic, "Arrests and Delinquency in Two Generations: A Study of Black Urban Families and Their Children," Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 16 (1975):125-140; Task Force on the Female Offender, The Female Offender: What Does the Future Hold? (Arlington, VA: American Correctional Association, 1989); J.Q.Wilson and R. Herrnstein, Crime & Human Nature (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985). [Return to text]

2. B. Bloom and S. Covington, "The Gendered Mental Health Needs of Women Offenders," Paper Presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Society Of Criminology, Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Atlanta, Georgia, 2003; L.E. Glaze and L.M. Maruschak, "Parents In Prison and Their Minor Children," Publication NCJ222984, Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2008; T.E. Hanlon, R.J. Blatchley, T. Bennett-Sears, K.E. O'Grady, M. Rose, and J. Callaman, "Vulnerability of Children of Incarcerated Addict Mothers: Implications for Preventive Intervention," Children and Youth Services Review 27.1 (2005): 67-84; C. Mumola, "Incarcerated Parents and Their Children," Publication NCJ182335, Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2000; S.D. Phillips, A. Erkanli, G.P. Keeler, E.J. Costello, A. Angold, "Disentangling the Risks: Parental Criminal Justice Involvement and Children's Exposure to Family Risks," Criminology and Public Policy 5.4 (2006): 677-702. [Return to text]

3. C.C. Egley, D.E. Miller, J.I. Granatos, and C.I. Fogel, "Outcome of Pregnancy During Imprisonment," Journal of Reproductive Medicine 37.2 (1992):131-134; D. Johnston, Children of Criminal Offenders (Pasadena: The Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents, 1992); C. McCall and N. Shaw, Pregnancy In Prison: A Needs Assessment Of Prenatal Outcomes In Three California Penal Institutions (Sacramento, CA: Department of Health Services, Maternal and Child Health Branch, 1985); B. Shelton, F. Armstrong, and S.E. Cochran, "Childbearing While Incarcerated," American Journal of Maternal Child Nursing 8.23 (1983); J. Wismont, "The Lived Pregnancy Experience of Women in Prison," Journal of Midwifery and Women's Health, 45.4 (2000): 202-300. [Return to text]

4. P.J. Baunach, "Mother from Behind Prison Walls," Presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Society of Criminology: Philadelphia, PA, November 1979; D. Johnston (1991); D. Johnston (1992); L.A. Koban, "Parents in Prison: A Comparative Analysis of the Effects of Incarceration on the Families of Men and Women," Research in Law, Deviance and Social Control 5 (1983): 171-183; B.G. McGowan and K. Blumenthal, Why Punish the Children? (Hackensack, NJ: National Council on Crime & Delinquency, 1978); A. Stanton, When Mothers Go To Jail (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1980); S. Zalba, Women Prisoners and Their Families (Sacramento, CA: California Department of Corrections and California Department of Social Welfare, 1964). [Return to text]

5. D. Johnston, "Effects of Parental Incarceration," in K. Gabel and D. Johnston, eds., Children of Incarcerated Parents (New York: Lexington Books, 1995); J. Poehlmann, "Representations of Attachment Relationships in Children of Incarcerated Mothers," Child Development 76 (2005): 679-696. [Return to text]

6. A. Adalist-Estrin, "Parenting... from Behind Bars," Family Resource Coalition Report 5.1 (1986): 12-13; J.E. Blackwell, "The Effects of Involuntary Separation on Selected Families of Men Committed to Prison from Spokane," Unpublished Dissertation, State College of Washington, 1959; B. Bloom and D. Steinhart, Why Punish the Children? A Reappraisal of the Children of Incarcerated Mothers in America (San Francisco: National Council on Crime and Delinquency, 1993); E.I. Johnson and J. Waldfogel, "Children of Incarcerated Parents: Cumulative Risk and Children's Living Arrangements," Working Paper 306, Chicago: Joint Center for Poverty Research, 2002; D. Johnston (1992). [Return to text]

7. D.P. Farrington, "Early Predictors of Adolescent Aggression and Adult Violence," Violence and Victims 4 (1989): 79-100; S. Friedman and T.C. Esselstyn, "The Adjustment of Children to Parental Absence Due to Imprisonment," Federal Probation 29 (1965): 55-59; D. Johnston (1995); L.A. Sroufe, B. Egeland, E.A. Carlson, and W.A. Collins, The Development of the Person: The Minnesota Study of Risk and Adaptation from Birth to Adulthood (New York: Guilford Publications, 2005); S. Phillips, and J.P Gleeson, "What We Know Now That We Didn't Know Then About the Criminal Justice System's Involvement in Families with Whom Child Welfare Agencies Have Contact," Children, Families and the Criminal Justice System Research Brief, Chicago: University of Illinois at Chicago, July 2007; J.P. Murray, C. Janson, and D.P. Farrington, "Crime in Adult Offspring of Prisoners: A Cross-National Comparison of Two Longitudinal Samples," Criminal Justice and Behavior 34.1 (2007): 133-149; W.H. Sack, J. Seidler, and S. Thomas, "Children of Imprisoned Parents: A Psychosocial Exploration," American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 46 (1976): 618-628; A. Stanton (1980); A.D. Trice and J. Brewster, "The Effects of Maternal Incarceration on Adolescent Children," Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology 19 (2004): 27-35. [Return to text]

8. M. Giulliom and D. Shaw, "Codevelopment of Externalizing and Internalizing Problems in Early Childhood," Development and Psychopathology 16 (2004): 313-334; R. Loeber, "Development and Risk Factors of Juvenile Antisocial Behavior and Delinquency," Clinical Psychology Review 10 (1990): 1-41; R. Loeber and T. Dishion, "Early Predictors of Male Delinquency," Psychological Bulletin 94 (1983): 68-99; T. Moffitt, "Adolescence-Limited and Life-Course-Persistent Antisocial Behavior: A Developmental Taxonomy," Psychological Review 100 (1993): 674-701. [Return to text]

9. D. Johnston, "What Works: Children of Prisoners," in V. Gadsden, ed., Heading Home: Offender Reintegration in the Family—What Works (Lanham, MD: American Correctional Association, 2002); S.D. Phillips, et al. (2006). [Return to text]

10. D. Johnston (2002). [Return to text]

11. S.A. Kinner, A. Alati, J.M. Najman, and G.M. Williams, "Do Paternal Arrest and Imprisonment Lead to Child Behavior Problems and Substance Use? A Longitudinal Analysis," Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 48.11 (2007): 1148-1156; S.D. Phillips, et al. (2006). [Return to text]

12. L.J. Bakker, B.A. Morris, and L.J. Janus, "Hidden Victims of Crime," Social Work 23 (1978): 143-148; B.G. McGowan and K. Blumenthal (1978). [Return to text]

13. E. Barry, "Women in Prison," in C. Lefcourt, ed., Women and the Law (Deerfield, IL: Clark, Boardman & Callahan, 1990); P.J. Baunach (1979); T.A. Fritsch and J.D. Burkhead, "Behavioral Reactions of Children to Parental Absence Due to Imprisonment," Family Relations 30 (1982): 83-88; W.H. Sack, et al. (1976). [Return to text]

14. J. Bowlby, A Secure Base (New York: Basic Books, 1988); L.A. Sroufe, "Attachment and Development: A Prospective, Longitudinal Study from Birth to Adulthood," Attachment and Human Development 7 (2005): 349-367. [Return to text]

15. L.A. Sroufe (2005). [Return to text]

16. M.D.S. Ainsworth, M. Blehar, E. Waters, and S. Wall, Patterns of Attachment (Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1978); M. Main, "Recent Studies in Attachment," in S. Goldberg, R. Muir, and J. Kerr, eds., Attachment Theory: Social, Developmental and Clinical Perspectives (Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press, 1995); L.A. Sroufe, et al. (2005). [Return to text]

17. S. George, N. Kaplan, and M. Main, "Adult Attachment Interview Protocol," Unpublished manuscript, University of California, Berkeley, 1985. [Return to text]

18. L.A. Sroufe (2005). [Return to text]

19. J. Bowlby, Attachment and Loss, Volume 2: Separation (New York: Basic Books, 1973). [Return to text]

20. C. Hamilton, "Continuity and Discontinuity of Attachment from Infancy Through Adolescence," Child Development 71 (2000): 690-694; E. Waters, K. Kondo-Ikemura, and J. Richters, "Attachment Security in Infancy and Early Adulthood," Child Development 71 (1990): 684-689. [Return to text]

21. L.A. Sroufe, et al. (2005). [Return to text]

22. D. Johnston (1992); D. Johnston (2002). [Return to text]

23. R. Parlakian, Look, Listen, And Learn: Reflective Supervision And Relationship-Based Work (Washington, DC: Zero to Three, 2001). [Return to text]

24. A. Copa, L. Lucinski, E. Olsen, and K. Wollenburg, Promoting Professional and Organizational Development: A Reflective Practice Model (Washington, DC: Zero to Three, 1999). [Return to text]

25. A. Copa, et al. (1999). [Return to text]

26. S. Sambrano, M.A. Jansen, and S.J. O'Neill, "Emerging Findings from High-Risk Youth Prevention Programs," Journal of Community Psychology 25.5 (1998): 371-373. [Return to text]

27. E. Fenichel, Learning Through Supervision and Mentorship to Support the Development of Infants, Toddlers, and Their Families: A Sourcebook (Washington, D.C.: Zero to Three, 1992); R. Parlakian (2001). [Return to text]

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