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Kinship Care Families: Navigating the Incarceration of a Parent

This MontGuide will discuss grieving the loss of someone to incarceration and also provide options for communicating and maintaining family connection while a loved one is incarcerated.

Last Updated: 08/18
by Jackie Rumph, MSU Extension Family and Consumer Sciences Agent, Yellowstone County


raising grandchildren (kinship care), it can be difficult to discuss why they are the primary caregivers for their grandchildren. There is added difficulty in this discussion when children are in their care because of a parent's incarceration. Rutgers National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated (NRCCFI) states that 50 percent of children with an incarcerated mother live with their grandmothers and 15 20 percent of children entering the child welfare system have an incarcerated parent.

Kinship caregivers commonly take on full-time responsibility for a child in rural areas. The following is an anecdotal situation: grandparents living in a small town receive a call to pick up their grandchild. The following week a newspaper article about their adult child’s arrest is published. The grandparents, who are already dealing with the realization that their grandchild may now be their responsibility, then may experience some stigma and embarrassment of neighbors knowing their adult child broke the law and is incarcerated.


The Loss of Incarceration

When a family member dies, it is typical for families to receive support in the form of visits, or food from neighbors and friends. It is often considered standard procedure that a funeral or memorial service is held to help provide closure and allow family members to process their loss. In contrast, when a family member is incarcerated, families are sometimes avoided altogether. This can be due to the stigma of incarceration. According to NRCCFI, societal perceptions of the incarcerated include people who may be unethical, untrustworthy and dangerous. Following their release, these stereotypes may follow a formerly incarcerated parent into their daily lives and invade their family’s lives as well. There is also a false belief that children who have incarcerated parents are more prone to criminal behavior and have a greater chance of being incarcerated themselves. However, research from Criminology, a research-based journal, does not support this. Instead, it indicates a home where criminal behavior is present has a larger impact on that child's potential to become incarcerated than simply having an incarcerated parent. Children and grandparents carry this stigma, which delays the grieving process of a missing parent and does not allow for closure. One impact of incarceration can be described as ambiguous loss. The parent is physically absent but psychologically present, as the parent’s presence is felt in day-to-day life, making it difficult for the children and caregivers to understand how to include the individual in their lives.

Kinship caregivers and children may experience a variety of emotions and strong feelings such as guilt, shame, sadness, and loss. These feelings can be present for both the caregiver and child. Caregivers discussing these feelings can bridge the gap between loss and closure. Children often want to know where their parents are and why they have not come home. As the caregiver, it is important to have an honest and understandable discussion with the child and the incarcerated parent to help answer these questions. Caregivers and the incarcerated parent will want to consider some choices: tell the child the truth and allow the child to share the truth or do not tell the child the truth. The older the child, the more likely they are to find out the truth, especially with access to the internet and discussion amongst relatives around them.

When discussing this with a young child, it is important to recognize that they may be sad or worried about their parent, even though they know they have made a legal mistake. For kinship caregivers, this may mean addressing their own emotions as well. Caregivers can validate the child's feelings by saying things like, “I am also sad that your mother isn’t here,” and “I miss your dad, too!” The child usually knows that when they break the rules, they have consequences such as a short time- out from playing with friends to calm down. Discussing prison as a consequence to their parents actions instead of labeling the parent as bad or evil can help clarify the event as well. Instead of saying, “Your dad is bad and that is why he is in prison,” a caregiver could say, “Your parent broke the rules and spending time in prison is their consequence.” A more detailed conversation may need to be had with an older grandchild. For example, a teenager would understand that a parent is incarcerated because he/she was arrested for a specific offense. Despite knowing that a parent is in legal trouble, teenagers may still want the parent to be a part of their lives. Teenagers may miss sharing their experiences growing, developing, and building new relationships with their parent. A kinship caregiver’s acknowledgement that they, too, miss the incarcerated parent could be helpful. Seeking professional guidance from a school counselor, social worker, or counselor may also be helpful.


Why Maintain Family Communications

Incarceration is a problem that affects the whole family, not just the incarcerated family member. Because of incarceration, families may experience a variety of changes in roles, responsibilities, finances, income, retirement plans, and in other areas. Kinship caregivers are not responsible for the choices the child's parent makes, but they are responsible for the contact that the parent can have with their children. Consistent with the stigma of incarceration, it is often assumed that parents who break the law are unfit parents; however, it is possible that people can experience incarceration and still be supportive parents. As primary caregivers, kinship caregivers will have to decide the best level of communication between the incarcerated parent and child. In addition, it may be helpful to consider communication and expectations of parental roles after the incarcerated parent has served time.

There are times when maintaining communication with an incarcerated parent is not in the best interest of the children or kinship caregivers. This includes when the parent is not an actively engaged parent and is putting his or her emotions and needs above those of a child’s. Research from the Medical Journal of Orthopsychiatry indicates that the mood incarcerated parents are experiencing when delivering a message to their children impacts their children’s mood as well. If the parent is suspected of causing direct harm to the child or if a protection order is in place against the parent, following court orders and keeping the child safe from further harm are the main priorities. This may be an opportunity for caregivers to discuss with the child their parents inability to care for them.

Maintaining communication can be a helpful step for families where the primary caregiver role is changing, such as when a grandparent becomes the custodial parent. This communication allows the child to talk to their incarcerated parent about what happened and what they are experiencing. It also allows the kinship caregiver to talk to the parent about the care of their child and their concerns. Furthermore, open communication can help relieve family stress by placing responsibility for the situation where it belongs, with the incarcerated parent. Communication with an incarcerated loved one can also reduce the trauma of loss and keep a supportive adult in that child’s life. Choosing how to manage communication is as unique as each family unit.


How to Maintain Family Communication

Maintaining communication can be complicated in the incarceration system. In Montana, the rules of each facility depend on the incarcerated person located there. When a parent is in a city or county jail, they may be able to place collect calls out of jail on a regular basis to whomever they want. If they are in prison or in an assessment center (a place assigned after sentencing where types of interventions are considered for the incarcerated parent), the caregivers must place money in an account for the phone number they want the incarcerated parent to call, and write a letter telling them that the money has been deposited into the account. The phone account is separate from commissary money and this unique account ensures that incarcerated individuals are using the money to call the intended people. The incarcerated individuals call time is dependent upon days of the week, time of day, and how busy the phone is in their living area. It can be helpful for families to have a call window, or a specific day of the week and time in which to expect a call from an incarcerated parent. This way, the kinship caregivers and child do not have to experience anxiety about calls from unknown phone numbers. Having a schedule provides consistency and reassurance for the child. If the parent is unable to call at the scheduled time, reassure the child that the parent is okay and that sometimes situations arise where the parent may not be able to call. Maintaining contact through letter writing is also an option. When writing a loved one, photos are allowed. Drawings are limited due to the possibility of the ink carrying illicit substances.

     Availability for visits with incarcerated parents vary as well. Some incarceration facilities only allow conversations through a glass panel, while others allow conversations in person at a table. Some facilities also allow video chats. In many instances, facilities are far from home so to extend the visitation time, the family can set up a video chat before the in-person meetings. In-person meetings are dependent upon the facility’s schedule. To find out about visiting days and hours, call the facility where the parent is incarcerated, or look on the facility website. Visiting in person can help reduce children’s fears about their parent’s safety. Often, the reality of a facility is much less terrifying than what a child might imagine. There is useful and relevant information available at the Montana Department of Corrections Family and Friends website (see



Kinship care happens for a variety of reasons, during the incarceration of a parent, and it can be especially isolating due to the stigma associated with incarceration, and the challenges of navigating the incarceration system. Taking time to build communication within a family during parental incarceration can help the family remain connected.


Useful Resources

The National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated: Libraries: Children of Incarcerated Parents Library,

Montana Department of Corrections Family and Friends website



Funding to support the development of this guide was provided by the Montana Children’s Trust Fund, Grant #4W6925.

We would like to thank the following individuals who reviewed an earlier draft of this MontGuide:

  • Dr. Mitch Vaterlaus, Montana State University
  • Kelly Moore, Missoula County FCS Extension Agent
  • Katrin Finch, Cascade County FCS Extension Agent



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