A systematic review of the literature
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A systematic review of the literature

A Systematic Review of the Literature







  • The total number of incarcerated mothers increased 122% since 1991 (Glaze & Maruschak, 2010). Despite the increasing incidence, little is still known about the particular risks facing children between the ages of 0 – 18 with incarcerated mothers also involved with the child welfare system.

  • Most incarcerated women are single (62%), White (48%), and between the ages of 25 to 34. Parenthood is also a reality, with 55% of women having minor children under the age of 18 (Glaze & Maruschak, 2010).

    Research Questions:

  • 1. What are the risk factors for children in the child welfare system with incarcerated mothers?

  • 2. What types of programs and social support services are available for children of incarcerated mothers?

  • 3. What is the effectiveness of the existing types of programs in the United States working with child welfare agencies towards the reunification of mothers with their children?

Social work relevance

Social Work Relevance

  • Examining children of incarcerated mothers also involved in the child welfare system is important to social work practice, social policy development, and as a basis for further research. This study can contribute to the body of knowledge for social workers and provide assistance towards the development of programs and social support services for children of incarcerated mothers.

Cultural relevance

Cultural Relevance

  • Consideration of race and ethnicity are critical issues when examining incarcerated mothers and their children. Racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system in comparison to their representation in the general population (Glaze & Maruschak, 2010). Continued awareness and development of appropriate services are needed for people of diverse backgrounds. Evidence-based interventions that employ race, ethnic, and gender specific modalities need further development (Miller, 2006).



  • Research Design: Qualitative, comparative analysis method (Miles & Huberman, 1994; Bradley, Curry, & Devers, 2007).

  • Data Collection Method: Reference library professional as well as comprehensive search of academic databases.

  • Sample: 20 – 25 articles during the past 15 years.

  • Analysis Plan: “PICO” method (Gambrill, 2006).



  • Many incarcerated mothers are imprisoned as a result of activities related to substance abuse problems (Mumola, 2000).

  • This review of the literature presented research indicating a lack of programs and services focusing on drug rehabilitation for women offenders with children (Beckerman, 1998; Craig, 2009).

  • Imprisoned mothers face many obstacles to avoid having their parental rights terminated (Beckerman, 1998; Halperin & Harris, 2004; Hayward & DePanfilis, 2007).

Results cont

Results Cont.

  • Child welfare agencies need to work collaboratively with correctional institutions and implement nationwide programs to meet the needs of incarcerated mothers and their children more effectively.

  • Also unaddressed are the problems facing children from the trauma of maternal incarceration. This literature review found no current information or reliable data indicating any significant improvements regarding special programs targeted towards children with incarcerated mothers.

Implications for social work policy practice

Implications for Social Work Policy & Practice

  • Research indicates that children of incarcerated mothers in the child welfare system are at risk for higher rates of antisocial and delinquent behavior than children whose mothers are neither incarcerated nor involved in the child welfare system (Cho, 2010; Foster & Hagan, 2007; Dallaire, 2007; Murray & Farrington, 2008; Murray, Seokol, & Olsen, 2009). Social work practitioners should create additional social service support for these children through partnerships among child welfare systems, correctional systems and prisoner advocacy groups.

Implications for social work research

Implications for Social Work Research

  • More research is needed to better understand the impact of maternal incarceration on children. While children of incarcerated mothers are at risk of experiencing many adverse outcomes, the exact cause of these outcomes and how to improve them is not clear (Hairston, 2007; Shlafer & Poehlmann, 2010).

  • Another gap in the literature involves the reunification of a formerly incarcerated mother with children who have been in the child welfare system (Gleeson, 2007; Hairston, 2009; Laughlin, Arrigo, Blevins, & Coston, 2008). Regarding those instances particularly involving kinship foster care, the research is minimal.



Beckerman, A. (1998). Charting a course: Meeting the challenge of permanency planning for children with incarcerated mothers. Child Welfare League of America, 77, 513-529.

Bradley, E., Curry, L., & Devers, K. (2007). Qualitative data analysis for health services research: Developing taxonomy, themes, and theory. Health Research and Educational Trust, 60, 1758-1772.

Cho, R. M. (2010). Maternal incarceration and children’s adolescent outcomes: Timing versus dosage. Social Service Review, 84, 257-282.

Craig, S. C. (2009). A historical review of mother and child programs for incarcerated women. The Prison Journal, 89(1), 35-53.

Dallaire, D. H. (2007). Incarcerated mothers and fathers: A comparison of risks for children and families. Family Relations, 56, 440-453.

Foster, H., & Hagan, J. (2007). Incarceration and intergenerational social exclusion. Social Problems, 54, 399-433.

Gambrill, E. (2006). Social work practice: A critical thinker’s guide (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Glaze, L., & Maruschak, L. M. (2010). Parents in prison and their minor children. Retrieved from http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/pptmc.pdf

Gleeson, J. (2007). Kinship care research and literature: Lessons learned and directions for future research. The Kinship Reporter, Child Welfare League of America, 1(2), 1-12. Retrieved from http://www.cwla.org/programs/kinship/kinship summer2007.pdf

Hairston, C. F. (2007). Focus on children with incarcerated parents: An overview of the research literature. Retrieved from http://www.aecf.org/~/media/Pubs/Topics/ Child%20Welfare%20Permanence/Foster%20Care/KinshipCareWhenParentsAreIncarceratedWhatWeKn/10147801_Kinship_Paper06a%203.pdf

Hairston, C. F. (2009). Kinship care when parents are incarcerated: What we know, what we can do. Retrieved from http://www.aecf.org

Halperin, R., & Harris, J. L. (2004). Parental rights of incarcerated mothers with children in foster care: A policy vacuum. Feminist Studies, 30(2), 339-352.

Hayward, R. A., & DePanfilis, D. (2007). Foster children with an incarcerated parent: Predictors of reunification. Children and Youth Services Review, 29, 1320-1334.

Laughlin, J. S., Arrigo, B. A., Blevins, K. R., & Coston, C. T. (2008). Incarcerated mothers and child visitation: A law, social science, and policy perspective. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 19, 215-238.

Miles, M. B., & Huberman, M. (1994). Qualitative data analysis: A sourcebook of new methods (2nd ed.). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Miller, K. M. (2006). The impact of parental incarceration on children: An emerging need for effective interventions. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 23(4), 472-486.

Mumola, C. J. (2000). Bureau of Justice Statistics special report: Incarcerated parents and their children. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.

Murray, J., & Farrington, D. P. (2008). The effects of parental imprisonment on children. Crime and Justice, 37(1), 133-206.

Murray, J., Farrington, D. P., Seokol, I., & Olsen, R. F. (2009). Effects of parental imprisonment on child antisocial behavior and mental health: A systematic review. Retrieved from http://www.campbellcollaboration.org/lib/

Shlafer, R. J., & Poehlmann, J. (2010). Attachment and caregiving relationships in families affected by parental incarceration. Attachment and Human Development, 12(4), 395-415.

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