To better understand the impact of parental incarceration in Harris County, Texas Children’s Section of Public Health Pediatrics recently led a needs assessment of children of incarcerated parents.
The year-long study was funded by Texas Medical Center’s Health Policy Institute and involved Baylor College of Medicine, the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, and the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.
“We wanted to better understand the needs of children with incarcerated parents in Harris County Jail as well identify opportunities to support these children,” said Nancy Correa, senior community initiatives coordinator for Texas Children’s Section of Public Health and Primary Care. “Parental incarceration as an adverse childhood experience has been largely overlooked and not well-studied, which is significant considering the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world and The Annie E. Casey Foundation estimates 5.1 million American children have a parent in jail or prison during their childhood.”
After conducting interviews with inmates and caregivers of children that have parents in Harris County Jail, researchers found that seven percent of all Harris County children have a parent who spends time in the county jail each year, half of inmates have at least one child under the age of 18, and 61 percent of incarcerated parents provided all or most of the financial support for their children before being jailed.
“If the person who is incarcerated is the breadwinner, lots of family needs all of a sudden become really critical,” said Dr. Chris Greeley, the section chief of Public Health and Primary Care. “Sometimes people will get incarcerated for something relatively minor, and they can’t afford to pay bond. Because of that, a kid’s life is irrevocably altered.”
During a February 12 press conference, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez underscored the multiple hardships children of incarcerated individuals face.
“Children are traumatized by being separated from their parent,” Gonzalez said. “Sometimes they have to change homes and schools routinely. These children also suffer shame and feelings of isolation, and have urgent basic needs like food and emotional support.”
The Sheriff said his office’s goal is to make visitation at Harris County Jail – the largest jail in Texas and the third largest in the United States – more child-friendly by making the visitors’ lobbies more inviting, developing curricula and training deputies on interacting with children when they visit the jail.
Gonzalez said he also plans on reviewing his department’s policies and determining best practices for when deputies arrest a parent when a child is present. He also plans on updating the Harris County jail website to include information on community resources.
“Children of incarcerated parents have been overlooked,” Correa said. “They are the innocent and forgotten victims of crime in our community, but there are things we can do to help.”