Children who have a parent in jail or prison often learn the many nuances of the phrase “guilty by association” the hard way.

“These children have to deal with the stigma of having a parent in jail on many different fronts,” says Marcy Douglass, assistant professor in the Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania Department of Counseling and College Student Personnel. “For instance, if something goes missing in their classroom at school, assumptions are often made.”

But even those assumptions that steer clear of questioning the child’s character can do damage. “These kids don’t want people to label them, but even teachers can think of them in a certain way,” says Danielle Schultz, a school counselor at Camp Curtin Elementary School in the Harrisburg (Pa.) School District. “People try to pigeonhole them as at-risk kids. That frustrates me because they also have so many positives and strengths.”

In addition, policies and practices meant to punish criminal offenders often end up claiming their children as collateral damage, says Elisabeth Bennett, associate professor and chair of the Gonzaga University Department of Counselor Education. According to the National Resource Center for Permanency and Family Connections, no official protocol exists for any jurisdiction or agency to ask whether prisoners have children, much less take steps to promote the welfare of these boys and girls. Bennett also cites a 2009 report from the Sentencing Project which found that more than half of state correctional facility inmates and nearly half of federal inmates with children had never had a personal visit with their children while in prison. In fact, rates of visitation had declined 28 percent between 1997 and 2007.

“Even though we now know more about how important clear attachments are for children, rates of visitation are dropping,” says Bennett, explaining that geographic proximity is often a major barrier to visitation. “As a society, we tend to think that prisoners should have as miserable a time as possible, so they shouldn’t be allowed to see their children. Maybe the person deserves that, but the question is, does the child deserve it?”

Bennett, a member of the American Counseling Association, says it’s also common for children to assume a certain level of guilt for a parent’s incarceration. “The child often sees the parent’s crime, especially in cases of domestic abuse or drug use, and witnesses the parent being removed from the home [by law enforcement]. In many cases, the child feels responsible for getting things back to the way they were. The kid often feels a huge amount of guilt for what has happened, particularly in cases of sexual abuse. Regardless, as the child, you’re left to deal with the destruction once the parent is incarcerated.”

Identifying the need

According to the Sentencing Project, an organization that promotes reforms in sentencing laws and alternatives to incarceration, an estimated 1.7 million children in the United States have an incarcerated parent. One in 15 black children, one in 42 Latina/o children and one in 111 white children have at least one parent in prison. The number of incarcerated fathers grew 76 percent between 1991 and 2007; the number of incarcerated mothers increased 122 percent during that period. Despite those numbers, “It’s not exactly a mainstream topic,” says Bennett.

Schultz concurs. “It’s a population that nobody talks about but almost everyone has a connection to. It was kind of a taboo subject” when Shippensburg University and the Harrisburg School District partnered during the 2009-2010 school year to provide group counseling for children with an incarcerated parent.

Children who have an incarcerated parent are likely to experience financial upheaval, chronic ambiguity, stigmatization, a range of emotional symptoms and altered relationships at home, at school and with authority figures, Bennett says, making it imperative that these children are identified and receive proper counseling support.

“It’s not uncommon for the child to see the parent removed from the home and for the child to be placed with social services, but then nobody processes with the kiddo. It’s just not part of the protocol,” says Bennett, who used to provide consulting for state services in Washington state. “Social workers are generally trained to secure services for the kids, not counsel them, so it’s not very common that counseling is included in the package. And if it is, it’s more of the triage variety. Social service agencies are often so overloaded with cases that there is no possible way for them to adequately assist every child as they would undoubtedly like.”

Among counselors, school counselors are generally in the best position to consistently engage with these children, but identifying which children have an incarcerated parent can be a sensitive matter, Bennett says. “These kids don’t wear a badge that says, ’My father is in jail.’ A lot of kids out there aren’t speaking out about what’s happening at home, but they need us, so it’s really incumbent on counselors to be savvy and pay attention to behavioral shifts.”

For example, she says, children who have an incarcerated parent — and particularly those children who witnessed their parent commit a crime — might experience nightmares, a lost sense of safety and increased levels of distress, anxiety, anger and fear. “Imagine that child sitting in school,” Bennett says. “He can’t really be present because all kinds of other things are going on in his head.”

According to Ann Adalist-Estrin, director of the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated, a child’s way of coping with parental incarceration is often misunderstood or misdiagnosed as depression, an anger management issue, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, a behavioral problem, antisocial behavior or a learning disability.

Although it’s easy to see why these children might struggle in school, some kids attempt to cope with their circumstances by becoming high achievers instead, says Douglass, a member of ACA. “Some of these children do very, very well in school because they don’t want to add to their family’s struggles. In fact, a perfectionist streak can crop up.”

But more commonly, she says, children with a parent in jail or prison are likely to exhibit emotional withdrawal, low self-esteem and acting out or antisocial behaviors. “There’s a certain trauma that starts with the actual arrest, particularly if the child is present at the time,” she says.

Attachment issues are prevalent among these children, who are commonly forced to navigate a large number of transitions and changes upon their parent’s incarceration, Douglass says. This is a major reason that they often have difficulty relating to their teachers and peers, she adds.

“Children whose fathers go to prison commonly live with their mothers, but they are often set into poverty, and the mother may naturally be feeling angry and overwhelmed,” Douglass says. “On the other hand, if it is the mother who is incarcerated, it is more likely that the child will be moved around and placed with an aunt or a grandmother. This might involve not only a physical move but a new school. In some cases, siblings may be split up. In other cases, the child may not know the relatives well. In many circumstances, it’s both a lack of the child’s physical needs and emotional needs being met.”

“We used to assume that losing mom was worse for the child,” Bennett adds, “but it really depends on whom the child’s attachment was with. Losing the rock, the connector, is the worst. The issue isn’t male or female or gender of the child. It’s about the attachment that was there and how it was disrupted.”

Establishing group support within the schools

Given Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania’s rural location and the area’s relative lack of diversity, Douglass began looking for opportunities to expose her counseling students to different cultures and environments. That eventually led to a partnership with the Harrisburg School District and a plan to develop a program to help schoolchildren whose parents were incarcerated.

In 2009, Shippensburg funded a two-day training, led by Adalist-Estrin, for each of the school district’s counselors and social workers. The training focused on using group counseling to raise the self-esteem of children with incarcerated parents while also lessening their sense of isolation. Three counseling graduate students from Shippensburg — Schultz, Clare Kenny and Natasha Nayduch — were chosen to function as school counseling interns and facilitated pilot groups for children ages 6 to 12 who had an incarcerated parent. Groups at the three schools were kept separate by age and gender. Each of the interns had completed course work in group counseling, working with children and adolescents, multicultural counseling and clinical skills development.

One of the initial challenges was identifying children who qualified for the group. The counselors first approached schoolteachers for possible referrals. “The teachers were initially leery of the idea,” Douglass says. “Some of them thought the topic was too sensitive and that it was nobody else’s business.”

One of the keys was making the true function and purpose of the groups clear to school personnel, says Schultz, an ACA member who was hired by the Harrisburg School District as a counselor after her internship. “We met some resistance in the schools, but after we explained that we would be working on the kids’ self-esteem and resilience rather than focusing on the topic of incarceration itself, resistance lessened. I even had a parent who had been incarcerated call me because he was afraid the group was going to be about him. I said, ’No, it’s really about your daughter.’”

The counselors also sent out general surveys in which a question was embedded asking students whether they had a family member in prison. “It seemed like everyone did, so we had to change it to ’Do you have a parent in prison?’” says Schultz.

The school counselors also displayed copies of the book My Daddy Is in Jail by Janet Bender in their offices, leading several students to self-refer for the group. “Students would see the book and just start talking about it,” Schultz says. Schultz runs anger management groups at her current school, and she says many of the boys in these groups have revealed they have a parent in prison without the question ever being raised.

After screening the students, the counselors sought consent from parents or caretakers to have their child participate in the groups. “I was nervous about approaching the parents, but once we explained the purpose of the group, they really understood what we were trying to do and wanted their child to be involved in the service,” Schultz says. “They just didn’t want their child to receive a negative label.”

Simply having groups dedicated to these students proved empowering for the participants. One student who was particularly embarrassed by his parent’s incarceration had been making up stories to explain the parent’s absence to others. “A lot of these kids had rather say their parent is in rehabilitation or in military service instead of saying their parent is incarcerated,” Douglass says. “But once this student found out about the group, his response was, ’Wow! It’s not just me.’ That was a huge part of the therapeutic process for him.”

The groups, which met once per week for six weeks, included activities designed to help the children express their feelings, build their self-esteem, improve their social skills and increase their ability to relate to one another. “Relationships are really, really difficult for these kids,” Douglass says. “There’s a fear for them in getting attached.” In addition, the groups addressed issues of grief and loss, “which is huge for these kids,” Douglass says.

Although sessions didn’t focus on incarceration, the students were told they could meet with their counselor individually if they wanted to talk about the topic in more depth. “Some of the students were just so eager to have someone to talk to because the nonincarcerated parent isn’t necessarily interested in talking about the other parent,” Douglass says, “and the kids don’t want to upset the parent who is still there for them.”

A place to relate

Schultz ran three separate groups for third-graders (two for girls and one for boys) who had an incarcerated parent. “There was an overwhelming need — more than we could service,” says Schultz, who hopes to put together a group for older students in the school where she now works.

“The kids really formed a tight-knit group with one another,” she says. “They acted markedly different while in the group and felt a sense of belonging. We set mutual respect and trust as the tone for the group, and they really fell in line with that. Relatively quickly, they were able to feel part of a group and got mad if one of the group members didn’t show up. Those who didn’t show up heard about it from the others.

“They loved being able to relate to each other, and we saw so much growth take place. Early on, they couldn’t even compliment each other. They couldn’t think of anything nice to say about another person in the group except for maybe complimenting their clothes. But by the end, they were able to articulate things that were much bigger concepts than, ’I like your shirt.’ I also noticed that they stuck together afterward [when the groups had concluded] and were able to draw support from one another.”

One activity that helped to build self-esteem was having group members trace their hands and then write something positive or unique about themselves for each finger. Another popular activity, especially among the boys, was Anger Can/Feelings Can. Group members would pick a slip of paper that included a fill-in-the-blank situation such as “Something that makes me angry is …” After answering, they would throw a ball to the other group members so they could take a turn answering the question. “Giving them an outlet to talk about their feelings was really powerful for them,” Schultz says.

Despite not focusing specifically on a parent’s incarceration, the group exercises repeatedly gave the children permission to let their feelings about the situation emerge. For instance, Schultz says, during the Anger Can/Feelings Can activity, a student might pull a statement that read, “Something that makes me sad is …” and answer, “When I can’t see my dad.”

Other activities from the curriculum the groups followed didn’t work as well. For instance, journal writing proved to be a turnoff. “Many of the children were already struggling in school or with their writing level,” Douglass says. “They didn’t want to come to group and have to try to write something else. We didn’t want group to be another place where they felt bad about themselves, so we let them use their journals to draw in if they wanted.”

At the same time, Schultz notes that at least one student who didn’t want to share anything out loud with the group was meticulous about recording his thoughts and feelings in the journal. Even so, she believes the ages and writing levels of group members should be taken into account when developing group activities. Having led these groups using someone else’s curriculum, Schultz and some of her colleagues want to develop their own curriculum incorporating what they have learned. On the basis of their experience, Schultz says the curriculum would place even more focus on feelings, self-esteem and resilience.

Over the course of the semester, the counselors used the Child Outcome Rating Scale and the Child Session Rating Scale to determine the experience of group members both immediately after the group session and throughout the week. In addition, teachers were asked to rate each child’s behavior (both before the program began and shortly after the final group session) using the Connors Behavioral Rating Scale. According to Douglass, the most significant findings that emerged were that the children who participated in the groups felt better both about school and about themselves. At the same time, the teachers rated the children as less oppositional while participating in the counseling groups.

The groups also proved popular with the children, with many of the kids in Schultz’s groups writing her letters, drawing her pictures and asking her if they could participate in a group again. “Of all the experiences I have had, running those groups was the most powerful,” Schultz says. “It’s given me a special place in my heart for this issue.”

What counselors can do

In what ways can counselors best help children whose parents are in jail or prison? “No. 1, just show them you can provide a safe place to come and talk about how they feel and what they are going through,” Schultz says. “Just be open and let these kids know you will be nonjudgmental. Help them not to hold it all in and pretend nothing is wrong.”

It’s also important to help this population of children and adolescents to rectify distorted thinking, she says. For instance, many think they are somehow to blame for their parent’s actions or, given their parent’s criminal behavior, believe they might be inherently “bad” themselves.

Bennett, who provides consulting services to schools concerning how best to help children of incarcerated parents and who has counseled many of these children personally, offers the following insights and tips to counselors.

  • “Simply ask what they need,” she says. “The children don’t often get asked this during the course of their parent’s arrest, trial, sentencing and incarceration.”
  • Instill hope about what they can do with their own lives rather than allowing them to assume (or assuming yourself) that their course has been predetermined by their parent’s history.
  • Provide group connections for kids to encourage universality. At the same time, she cautions, be careful not to allow these groups to evolve into “we hate the police” or “we hate the authorities” sessions.
  • Provide venues for kids to vent their emotions. “You can’t exactly normalize their experience,” Bennett says, “but you can normalize their feelings. Tell them it’s OK to cry and feel the way they’re feeling rather than bucking up.”
  • “Pump up these children’s sense of significance, power and competence so they will get their emotional needs met, not just their physical needs,” she says.
  • Help these children to remove self-guilt and self-blame. “Release the burden from them,” she says. “It wasn’t their fault. If they carry the responsibility for it, they will end up being angry with the world.”
  • “Be a stable and available presence because these kids really need stable and available people in their lives.” Bennett allows the kids with whom she works to text her outside of sessions.
  • Never dissuade a child from wanting to love and maintain a connection with his or her parent, regardless of what that parent has done. Also let the child know that it’s OK to have mixed emotions. “They can be mad at them and still love them at the same time,” Bennett says. When children aren’t allowed access to a parent during the course of a trial, Bennett encourages them to write notes to let the parent know what they were feeling at the time. Even if notes can’t be exchanged with the parent, “The child can look back on the notes and say, ’This is my history, this is my resilient self,’ and use that the next time they need to draw strength,” Bennett says.
  • Don’t make assumptions about how the child feels. “It’s not necessarily party time for the kid when a parent is finally released,” Bennett says. “It’s not automatically a settled time, despite what we might think. For instance, kids often panic if they see their parent doing something wrong or returning to crime. Sometimes, the child may be scared of or opposed to reunifying in the first place. And in many instances, the child harbors conflicting emotions.”
  • Adapt an advocacy role. Bennett encourages counselors to throw their weight behind policy changes that would support continuing relationships between prisoners and their children, including visitation, parenting classes and programs for reentry. “Counselors should also advocate for child services and toward child-centered case management,” she says. “Right now, most states focus on the parent, and the child is subject to the progress of the parent — or the lack thereof.”

Regardless of how a person feels about issues of crime and punishment, it’s important to “keep thinking of the children,” Bennett says. “That’s really the heart of the matter.”

Danielle Schultz created School Counselor Blog in January 2009 as a place for school counselors to share lesson plans, ideas and resources. Visit the blog at

Jonathan Rollins is editor-in-chief of Counseling Today. Contact him at