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What happens to children with parents behind bars?

More than five million U.S. children have had a parent behind bars, and research connects parental incarceration with poor health and academic outcomes for children, according to a new report from Child Trends.

BarsThe study found that one in eight poor children has had a parent behind bars. For black children, the statistic is one in nine and for all children, one in 14 has had an incarcerated parent. Parental incarceration has been associated with increased emotional and behavioral difficulties, poor academic performance, and a higher likelihood for experiencing more traumas throughout adolescence, known as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

For instance, 60 percent of the children in the study had endured parental divorce or separation, as opposed to 25 percent of children without a previously incarcerated parent. More than 66 percent either had witnessed domestic violence or experienced violence in their neighborhoods, and more than 25 percent had shared a home with someone mentally ill or suicidal.

Children with previously incarcerated parents also tended to experience greater problems in school. Students ages 6 to 11 were more likely to disengage in the classroom and exhibit significant emotional difficulties, while older children (ages 12 to 17) tended to have a higher rate of school-reported difficulties.

The report also offers ideas on ways to lessen the detrimental effects of parental incarceration on a child, including recommending that caring adults in the community step in to keep children healthy and focused. Teachers and school administrators are urged to learn about the unique challenges the students face and to develop strategies to maximize their chances of success in the classroom.

The study suggests other adults, including coaches, mentors and neighbors, can also provide support and be a positive role model for affected children in their communities.

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