Children with incarcerated parents are among the most at-risk populations in the United States. The recent trend toward mass incarceration in the United States, especially of women, has harmful implications for children because often their primary caregiver becomes incarcerated. Research indicates that children with incarcerated mothers are at heightened risk for attachment disturbance, leading to depression, anxiety, and other trauma-related stress. Such children are often subject to frequent changing of caregivers within the foster care system, which exacerbates these problems. Child welfare legislation is becoming more sensitive to the needs of children of incarcerated parents, but less reliance on prisons and more alternatives to incarceration are needed in order to mitigate the harmful impact of maternal incarceration on children. This review will focus on the following: (1) a history of the mass incarceration of women; (2) emotional, psychological, and social risk factors for the children of incarcerated women; (3) the intended and unintended repercussions of child welfare legislation; and (4) a case study of an alternative to incarceration program.
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