A household member being incarcerated is an ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience).
The ACE study’s definition of incarceration “Did a household member go to prison?“ is straightforward, but it’s worth explaining why this is an ACE.
First, the act of seeing someone you love arrested by the police, handcuffed, and led into a police car is traumatic for a child. If the parent who’s arrested is the child’s only caretaker, the child is going to need to live with someone else, likely either a grandparent or a perfect stranger. All the adults in the child’s life are likely to be fixated on what the arrested relative did and what can be done to get them out, or on what life without this person will be. Depending on what the family member did, the age of the child, and the nature of the school district the child attends, it is possible the child will be subjected to teasing or bullying if the arrest is newsworthy.
If the relative goes to prison, which implies a conviction and a longer sentence, the above disruptions become long-term. The family may face a significant loss of income if the arrested person was the sole or main earner, and that may result in a new school district, new neighborhood, etc. If a child is placed into foster care and the parent is sentenced to longer than 18 months they may lose their parental rights and their child could be adopted away from them. There can be a significant stigma associated with an arrested relative, depending on what the relative did and the nature of the school district. And a household member disappearing from a child’s life, for any reason, is a trauma.
Our nation’s criminal justice system simply is not going to disappear because arresting parents is bad for children. But we can look at policies that involve arresting fewer. Much attention is being paid, nationally, to mass incarceration policies related to the “war on drugs”. Things like marijuana legalization, decriminalization, and changing sentencing guidelines have already been adopted in many states and are being considered in many others. Diversionary courts for people suffering from drug addiction, mental illness, and some other low-level crimes have sprung up across the nation; these courts vacate or prevent convictions if the arrested person completes specific actions (for example, drug rehab and therapy) that are designed to help the root of the problem and prevent further offenses.
On a smaller scale, Maternal Home Visiting programs reduce the likelihood of arrest in participating families by reducing their drug use, improving their economic self-sufficiency, and guiding them away from unhealthy relationships.
A promising, but unproven, set of programs may be able to keep parental incarceration from being an ACE for some children. Prison nurseries are being used in a few female correctional facilities across the country. In these programs, pregnant women who are arrested receive prenatal care and are able to keep their child with them, for up to the first two years of the child’s life. Much of their mother’s day revolves around caring for her baby, with supervision, and learning about parenting, and preparing for reentering society with enough support in place that she and her baby will be OK. These programs appear to drastically decrease the mother’s risk of re-arrest; their effects on the baby are less well known. Even if the mother can’t be released by the baby’s second birthday and the baby has to be placed with someone else, the child has still formed a single, healthy attachment, which is a major factor in their own resilience and healthy neurodevelopment.