Frequently Asked Questions
In 2014, more than 1 in 28 children in the United States had an incarcerated parent. The loss of the parent is a crisis for the child on many levels, families and friends can work together to help the child succeed. The Families and Corrections Network of Families and Children of incarcerated fathers has several recommendations for parents and caregivers. Go to Rutgers University – The National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated to learn more about why maintaining relationships can be important in some situations.
Do everything you can to let your children know you care for and are committed to them. Use the suggestions below to learn how to protect your children from problems with the court system or with the other parent.
Incarcerated parents may be able to write letters to a child, and perhaps telephone the child, if permitted. The custodial parent has the option to say no to either form of contact, unless the court order says otherwise. If telephone or letter contact is not mentioned in the court order, it is suggested that you check with the other parent about the possibility of writing or telephoning the children, and get approval from him or her before you do it. Ask the law librarian about the facility’s rules for mailing letters to children.
If you are allowed to contact with the custodial parent, you are more likely to have his or her contact information once you are released. If possible, take parenting classes and communication classes and let the other parent know that you are working toward being a better parent and a better co-parent. Parenting is hard and many parents take classes to learn about parenting, even when apart from their children or the other parent.
The Children of Prisoners Library has several articles on visiting with mom or dad in prison, talking with children, and answering their questions. Although children need contact with the absent parent for the relationship to continue to develop, any communication must fit the child’s needs, not the parent’s needs. There are many benefits to writing letters to a child. Letters are a way to let your child know what you value about him and what is so special about her. Writing a letter is a way to connect. It is not a way to offer your side of your “story.” The child may read the letters many, many times. Think carefully about what you want your child to remember.
Children also need help coming to terms with what happened. Keeping the focus on your child and not on yourself helps children understand that you are thinking about them and not about yourself. Writing a letter to a 3- year-old is a lot different from writing to a 16-year-old. Even though your children were a certain age the last time you saw them, think about the ages they are now. That’s hard to do, but your children will like your recognizing they are growing up. Let your children know how proud you are of them and that you have hopes for their future. This is not about setting the record straight or going into lots of details. Share a few memories that mean a lot to you personally.
The law librarian may be able to help you with writing notes. If you are a friend, relative, or caregiver, visit The Children of Incarcerated Parents library from Rutgers University’s National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated, and print and mail the articles to the incarcerated parent.
Parents or caregivers can help the child by talking with them about the letters. Children respond best when they hear the truth. Telling the truth does not mean going into all the details or expressing your option about what happened. For instance, if the child wants to know the whereabouts of the absent parent, do not make misleading comments to them and say he or she is in the military, working far away, or in school. Children learn the truth when parents don’t come home from the military, or work or school. If you mislead the child, the child will not trust you. The child may feel hurt, angry, and resentful when the truth comes out. Children need to know who they can count on in good times and sad times.
If you are worried about staying connected with your children, read more about your parenting time rights at Rutgers Children of Incarcerated Parents Library.
An incarcerated parent is still the child’s parent. In many cases, a child has a legal right and an emotional need to remain in contact with the parent in prison. It’s important to understand the needs of the child may be different from the custodial parent’s needs regarding contact with the incarcerated parent. Before a child visits the parent in jail or prison, the custodial parent should talk to the child about what to expect. After the visit, the child should be encouraged to talk openly about thoughts and feelings regarding the visit, and the custodial parent should respond sensitively.
If incarceration is not mentioned in your court order, a custodial parent is generally under no obligation to bring the children for visits. The inability to pick up your children is viewed as forfeiting your right to physical time with them.
Incarcerated parents may be able to write letters, and telephone the child. The custodial parent or caregiver has the option to say no to any form of contact, unless the court order says otherwise. Get the other parent or caregiver’s approval to write or telephone the children.
If permitted, stay in contact and on good terms with the custodial parent or caregiver while you are incarcerated. That way, you will have his or her contact information once you are released. That will make it easier to spend time with your children. Think about what you will want once you are released, and make a plan for maintaining positive relationships with your children’s caregivers.
A criminal conviction does not affect your parental rights and responsibilities unless a court decides to specifically address it. Therefore, any visitation rights you had prior incarceration, are still in effect after your release, unless your court order was changed to remove your access and possession rights.
Think about how the child will feel about seeing you for the first time after a long absence. Instead of building up expectations that might lead to disappointment, start off slowly. You have many years to build on a strong start. The custodial parent may have valid concerns about you spending long periods of time with children that you have not seen in a while. Prepare yourself for the many questions they will have and what you think would be helpful for them to hear. Reunions rarely meet anyone’s expectations and feeling let down afterward is a normal response. It may take several reunions to get reacquainted. It gets better. It may take 10 or 12 or 20 times of showing up and sticking it out. Show your child you are committed. You may be shocked to see how much they’ve grown since you last saw them. Talk to them at the age level they are now, not at the level they were when you last saw them. Teenagers, especially, resent being talked to as if they are in elementary school. Your children may test you and this is normal. Common reactions at reunions are shock, sorrow, happiness, anger and tears—sometimes all in the first few minutes, or sometimes spread over several visits.
Think about what type of child you have. Is the child shy or up for anything? Is your child slow to warm up to people, or does your child worry easily? You could start to visit with the children over lunch at school, or spend an afternoon with them in the park with another adult present, in order to rebuild trust. An adult friend or relative that the child could run to for reassurance and a hug can help everyone get through the first few visits. The child may be excited, yet still feel the need for approval that it’s really okay.
The Seedling Foundation provides mentors for children of incarcerated parents. Seedling’s Promise program pairs children ages 5-18 with a caring adult who meets them at the school. Positive relationships are developed that can improve children’s lives for years to come.
Big Brothers Big Sisters makes meaningful, monitored matches between adult volunteers and children ages 6 through 18. The volunteers develop positive relationships that have a direct and lasting effect on the lives of young people.
Resources from The Office of the Attorney General