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Waiting for Mommy: Giving a Voice to the Hidden Victims of Imprisonment

NCJ Number
Alison Cunningham M.A.; Linda Baker Ph.D.
Date Published
75 pages
This was an exploratory study investigating the practical and emotional consequences for children separated from mothers by detention, penal sentences, or both, and how these factors interact with pre-existing vulnerabilities to destabilize an already challenged family unit.
In the United States, the mothers of an estimated 126,000 children were in State or Federal prison in 1999 and 35,400 households were missing a mother because of incarceration. This was an exploratory study of the impact of maternal incarceration on children and adolescents. The study focused on women involved with the provincial correctional system in Ontario, specifically those on remand, serving sentences of less than 2 years, or in custody for fine default. The study employed several methodologies to collect information from a variety of resources: a literature review, a survey of incarcerated mothers, a survey of mothers after release, interviews of children and adolescents, a proposal of a developmental model of impact, and a review of program models. In pooling the information gathered from the various methodologies several observations can be made about the experiences and needs of children affected by maternal incarceration: (1) separation because of maternal incarceration is more destabilizing for children than paternal incarceration; (2) mothers in prison are more likely to be a custodial parent than fathers in prison; (3) when a mother goes to prison, it is likely the children will have to change caretakers and residences; (4) children of women in prison are at greater risk of being taken into care; (5) women in conflict with law tend to have partners who are also in conflict with the law; (6) women in prison tend to have more serious allied problems then men in prison; (7) women in prison are more socially and economically disadvantaged than men in prison; (8) mothers released from prison face more parenting challenges than fathers; (9) children of incarcerated mothers have an elevated vulnerability to criminal behavior themselves; (10) impact will vary depending on many factors including the age of the child; and (11) certain features of the current system exacerbate the negative impact on children and there are those that minimize the damage. The study then describes a hypothetical model (developmental model) of how children and adolescents are affected by absences associated with maternal incarceration. It then reviews examples of program models for informational resources, such as visiting programs, mentoring, residential programs, and groups for children. The study concludes with several recommendations for future research. Tables, references, and appendices A-C