HARRISBURG, Pa. – When a parent goes to prison, the effects on his or her children can be devastating, but a new report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation says there are ways to lessen the impact.

Nationwide, more than 5 million children, including 181,000 in Pennsylvania, have seen a parent go to jail or prison.

Scot Spencer, the Casey Foundation’s associate director for advocacy and influence, says for the child that can be as traumatizing as abuse, domestic violence or divorce.

“There are some longstanding impacts,” he stresses. “It can increase a child’s mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, and it can hamper educational achievement in that child.”

The Casey Foundation’s report, “A Shared Silence,” outlines policy recommendations to help children and parents cope with incarceration, and with reintegration as a family after a release from prison.

Spencer says passing a statewide ban the box law, removing questions about criminal convictions from employment applications, could make a big difference.

As he points out, such laws help parents released from prison provide for their families.

“They defer the question about a person’s record to the conditional employment stage, so that they have more stable footing to be able to apply for the job and qualify for the job,” he explains.

Several states and dozens of cities, including Philadelphia, have passed ban the box laws.

And the report recommends states direct more funds to job training in prison with a focus on high demand careers, to improve the chances of finding work that can support a family.

Finding housing after release from prison also can be a problem, and Spencer says this is another area where help is needed.

“State and local governments should provide incentives to lift restrictions on people with records so the families can remain in or access safe and affordable housing,” Spencer stresses.

The Casey Foundation says racial disparities in the justice system mean children of color are far more likely to have a parent in prison than white children.

Andrea Sears