The recent U.S. border crisis highlights the trauma that children experience after being separated from their parents. Mass incarceration in this country, while a different phenomenon than that of migrants at the border, has similarly devastating consequences for not only children but also their parents.

As noted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the U.S. continues to incarcerate more people than any other country in the world. An estimated 10,000 children in Minnesota have a parent in jail or prison, according to Rebecca Shlafer from the University of Minnesota Medical School and Julie Atella from Wilder Research.

While there are differences between separating families at the border and the separation that occurs when a parent goes to jail or prison, children are always collateral damage. Children depend on their parents for even the most basic needs.

Indeed, Shlafer notes that parental incarceration is catastrophic for children. Children with an incarcerated parent are more likely to experience anxiety, depression and myriad other psychological problems. They have higher rates of attempted and actual suicide. They are also at greater risk for developing lifelong physical problems, such as asthma and migraines.

Parents and children separated by incarceration may theoretically be allowed to remain in contact. But the heartbreaking reality is that there are substantial barriers to maintaining meaningful relationships.

While working with Children of Incarcerated Caregivers, an organization dedicated to promoting the well-being of children with an incarcerated parent, our research team found that visitation policies, which are often difficult to access and unclear — combined with limited hours for family visits — are burdensome obstacles to maintaining a parent-child relationship.

Additionally, limited public transportation to prisons is a hurdle that disproportionally affects the most disadvantaged families, who often do not have access to private vehicles. A family traveling from Minneapolis to visit an inmate in Stillwater, for instance, would have to travel almost five hours by bus, compared with one hour by car.

I was born in the former Yugoslavia but fled with my parents to escape a brutal conflict that displaced more people from Europe than any since World War II. The uncertainty of leaving behind everything familiar left an impression on me, even though I was never separated from my parents. I became introverted and had trouble making friends as a child. I did not know that those were symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Although my experiences are different from those of children separated from their parents by incarceration, I wonder what would have happened to me without the constant support of my parents.

I recognize the importance of enforcing laws. I also firmly believe that punishing children for mistakes their parents made is cruel. Courts often do not take into consideration the effects of separating children from their parents in rendering sentences; federal sentencing guidelines note that “[…] family ties and responsibilities are not ordinarily relevant in determining whether a sentence should be below the applicable guideline range.” This is concerning because evidence suggests that the parent-child relationship is strong motivation for successfully completing probation.

Courts should therefore consider alternatives to incarceration as a way to keep families together. Communities should also work together to develop more alternatives to prison, focusing on rehabilitation, maintaining familial relationships and the well-being of children.

When a prison sentence is appropriate, facilities should provide clear guidance on their websites about how children can visit their parents. Thought should be given to developing child-friendly visitation policies and practices, and transportation options should be expanded for children who wish to visit incarcerated parents.

It may be challenging to empathize with strangers accused of a crime. But a focus on rehabilitation, rather than punishment, can reduce recidivism while strengthening communities and improving the well-being of children. We have to decide what actions we take in the present because it becomes our legacy to future generations.


Damir S. Utržan is a licensed marriage and family therapist and board-approved clinical supervisor. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Health in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Minnesota Medical School.