Children of incarcerated parents (CIP)

Unintended victims: a project for children of incarcerated parents and their caregivers

Information for those caring for children of incarcerated parents

With incarceration rates rising in the United States, the number of children who have a parent in jail or prison is on the rise. It is estimated that more than 1.7 million children are CIPs (or children of incarcerated parents) in the United States. According to the Arizona Children’s Association, almost 200,000 such children live in Arizona, which has one of the highest incarceration rates of any Western state. 

Whether being raised by the remaining parent, by grandparents or other relatives, or by foster care parents, these children face many challenges. They are often at risk for behavioral and educational problems or find themselves living in unstable environments before or after the parent’s incarceration. In addition, they and their caregivers must navigate the intricacies of the criminal justice system in order to maintain relationships with their absent parent. 

In 2010, The Northern Arizona University Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice received a grant to interview children in Northern Arizona whose parents were currently or previously had been in jail or prison. Over the next three years, under the guidance of Dr. Rebecca Maniglia, Project Director, more than 55 children and 40 caregivers shared their experiences of joy, pain, frustration and fear resulting from the incarceration of a parent.  

Glossary of criminal justice terms

ARREST…A person is arrested when the police believe the person has broken a law. Being arrested does not mean you are guilty of anything. That will be decided later on. When someone is arrested the police usually hook their hands behind their back in metal rings called handcuffs and then put them in a police car. An arrest can be scary if there is a lot of yelling or fighting when it happens. If you saw your mom or dad arrested and it scared you, consider talking to someone you trust about it.

COURT…is a place where people meet to talk about what your mom or dad might have done. At court you will see a judge and lawyers who make arguments to the judge about what should happen next.

JUDGE…a judge is someone who listens to why your mom or dad was arrested and makes decisions about what should happen next. Sometimes a group of people called a jury will help make the decisions.

PLEA BARGAIN…what happens when the lawyers and your mom or dad agree should happen next. This is agreement is a plea bargain

SENTENCE…when a judge or a jury decides what happens to someone who has broken the law that decision is called a sentence. Sometimes people are sentenced to live at a jail or prison for a period of time.

JAIL…a jail is a building where people stay when they have been arrested. It has locked doors, and you can’t visit someone there except at special times with permission. Sometimes people living in a jail have to stay until a judge or jury decides what will happen to them next. Other people live in jail because a judge has decided they need to stay there.

PRISON…a prison is a locked building where people stay for usually a year or more because a judge or jury has decided they have broken a law. There are fewer prisons than jails so sometimes a prison will be further from where you live than a jail.

INCARCERATION…This is the big word that means someone is in jail or in prison. Children who have a mom or dad living in a jail or prison are sometimes called CIPs or children of incarcerated parents.

View the steps in criminal justice process here

What children might be experiencing

  • Children may feel sad at not being able to interact with the parent in “normal” ways. 
  • Children may feel guilty their parent was arrested. They need to know they are not responsible for their parents’ actions.
  • Children may feel anger at the parent for leaving them or for breaking the law.
  • Children may even want to punish the parent so that they experience the same hurt as the child. 
  • Children may not know whether to share their “secret” and may fear being teased or drawing unwanted attention to the family. 
  • Children may have questions about jail/prison or even fear for the safety and comfort of their parent. 
  • Children may have fears about what will happen to them now. This is especially true if incarceration happens more than once or is for an extended period.
  • Children may have fears about ending up in jail or prison themselves. 
  • Children may struggle with whether or not to maintain their relationship with the incarcerated parent. 
  • Children may struggle to concentrate at school resulting in the need for intervention.

Children's perspective and experience having an incarcerated parent
For visiting jail (not prison) or what is jail like…

“It was scary because I was a kid and it was just a big room with a whole bunch of people so you can’t have private conversations.  Leaving was hard.  I think it should be person to person, and you should be able to hug them and stuff.” (eighth grade girl)

“I felt trapped in there.  It felt like I was going to be there when I grew up,” (sixth grade boy)

“We waited and waited, and we put our stuff inside those little lockers and then we went to go see him when they called his name.  And then we talked to him about school and work and what we want to do when he gets out.  He said he’s gonna take us to Panda Express.  I had to share the phone with my brothers so we took turns.  We only get a little bit of time because he has to go back because they came and got him and told him he’s out of time. ”  (ten year old girl)

Prison visiting…

“We had to get my birth certificate and other forms.  I had to take off my shoes and they had to search everything in my jacket and check my hair to make sure I didn’t have drugs or anything in there. Then I went through a metal detector, and it went off but I knew I didn’t do anything wrong.  Two guards rushed over and they did this swipey thing on me and then I got to see my mom.”  (fifth grade girl)

“I remember sitting down and talking to her about school and how everything was going and she told us what she was doing down there.  I got to sit with her, hug her, be able to touch her.” (19 year old girl)

“When we got there the cops had to check our car and then we had to get sniffed by dogs.  When we went into there we had to give all our metal to them because we had to go through the scanner, and we had to take off our shoes.  And then I got to see my daddy!  It was awesome.” (9 year old boy)

Telling someone…

“It was important to have someone to tell because there was someone who knew what I was going through so they weren’t like ‘come on, do this’ when I didn’t want to. They knew what I was feeling.” (eighth grade girl)

“I’d really like to find somebody that has a story like mine because at school I’m like the only person with a parent in prison.  Whenever someone asks me I try to change the subject, and I’d really like to have a friend but I’m scared if I tell them my story they’re going to judge me.”  (fifth grade girl)  

Will I go to jail…

“We are at risk definitely.  It’s a cycle.  A lot of my family did drugs and were n the system.  That inspired me. I’ve never been part of the system.  I’ve never been arrested for anything, not even a speeding ticket.  I try to avoid all that.” (adult woman whose mother was in prison when she was little)


“Whenever I’m around cops I am nervous cause how they talk and stand and dress and just like how their entire job is.  I start shaking and try not to look at them or anything.  They asked me where my dad was and when I said I didn’t know, they said I was lying to them.”  (fourth grade girl)

“When I was little that’s all they were ever called for.  The police were never called if something good happened, you know.  The police were called when something bad would happen and they wer there to take someone away…if they were called someone was leaving.”  (19 year old girl)

Angry at parent…

“When my mom got out I was happy like ‘oh yes mom’ and I was scared like ‘oh no mom.’ You don’t know if she’s gonna get out and it’s gonna all be the same…She was still hanging around with the same people…and that made me so angry.  When she went back to jail she’d call and I’d answer the phone and when I knew it was her I didn’t talk to her.  It made her sad.  I know it did.  I wanted to hurt her.  To give her some of that hurt that she gave us.”  (19 year old girl)

 Project findings

  • Children who had witnessed their parent’s arrest experienced significant trauma due to the sudden & dramatic loss of a parent, especially if the arrest was followed by a long period of pre-trial incarceration without visitation.
  • Children who had witnessed their parent’s arrest often harbored negative attitudes toward law enforcement. Stories from our children suggest a need for developing new police protocols when children are present at a parental arrest.
  • Children had strong feelings about their parent’s incarceration. Even when caregivers assumed children were coping, they often expressed deep, sometimes hidden, feelings of sadness or anger during our interviews.
  • Caregivers felt isolated and alone not knowing where to find appropriate resources or support. Most received no financial or emotional support once taking in the children or becoming the sole parent.
  • Caregivers were frustrated at the difficulty of navigating the policies & expenses associated with inmate mail,commissary, visitation and phone contact—the formal ways of maintaining the relationship between children & their incarcerated parents.
  • Caregivers struggled to balance their relationship with the incarcerated person and the relationship between the children & the incarcerated parent. Visitation expenses & policies often made it difficult for caregivers to balance their own relational needs with those of their children.

Overview of inmate contact

In Arizona inmates purchase phone cards or families set up phone accounts that allow inmates to call them collect. Costs vary & calls from facilities are recorded and monitored.

Jail visitation typically involves talking on a phone while separated from the inmate by a piece of glass. Visitation must be arranged ahead and requires a state ID. Minors can visit with an adult but a birth certificate is sometimes required at the time of visitation.  

Prison inmates request visitation and those selected must complete an Application for Visitation and pay for a background check. Minors must also apply but a background check is not required. Prison visitation often allows children to hug or touch a parent or to share a meal together.

Inmates can receive letters or pre-metered postcards. Inmate mail is usually monitored and its content restricted. In Arizona you cannot send mail with glue, crayons, or glitter on it but children can draw pictures in ink or pencil.

Find prison information and policies