Principal Investigator:
Darlene Grant, Ph.D.
Co-Principal Investigators:
Toni Johnson, Ph.D.
Tanya Voss, MSSW


This study will address grief and loss reaction and related behavioral issues of children of incarcerated parents associated with the trauma of losing a parent to incarceration. Research shows that these children are at a particularly high risk for developing behavior problems such as acting out in school, aggression, and criminal behavior. The hypothesis of this study is that by addressing these emotional and behavioral issues in a group setting, the negative impact of parental loss would be reduced.

The psycho-educational group held at the Deferred Prosecution Unit of the Travis county Juvenile Probation Department targets the most at risk of these youth. The Deferred Prosecution Unit, specifically the Social Workers in Family Services (DPU-SWIFS) is focused on serving these youth and their families. Unlike previous studies of children of incarcerated parents that focus primarily on young children, participants in these particular groups are all pre-teens or adolescents on probation or deferred prosecution who may have been detained in the justice system themselves. The group sessions are designed to provide these youth a weekly opportunity for structured therapeutic interaction to address unresolved issues related to the grief and loss surrounding parental incarceration.

The purpose of this study is to evaluate the impact and effectiveness of a group intervention on the children/youth’s understanding of parental incarceration. Ideally this research will provide information about the effectiveness of the eight-week therapeutic group intervention. Further, the study will gather information on the attachment patterns of the group participants — a subgroup of juvenile justice clients who are children of incarcerated parents — in an effort to better inform clinicians in their intervention choices.


The United State’s prison population’s unprecedented growth over the past two decades has created an overwhelming number of children, approximately 1.5 to 2 million, with at least one parent in jail, state, or federal prison. Despite the large numbers of incarcerated parents, the children have become the forgotten population since their special needs are frequently not understood or addressed (Seymour and Wright, 2000).

Numerous researchers note that parental incarceration has profound and pervasive effects on children. Incarcerated parents face many difficulties remaining in meaningful relationships with their children. One of the most devastating aspects of parental incarceration is the negative effect on the well being of the child. The resulting trauma may damage the autonomy and initiative of the child. Studies indicate that children are able to perceive and remember traumatic events, but need assistance to process and adjust. The development of a child’s ability to succeed in school and cope with difficult emotions may be hindered by parental incarceration. There are many variables that are involved to determine the child’s success rate. Children may suffer from depression, anxiety, and other serious emotional problems. Children of incarcerated parents have reported post-traumatic stress syndrome symptoms analogous to children whose parents have died (Sharp, Bentley, Love, et. al., 1993).

Parental incarceration is a serious problem that the social work field has only begun to address. Current research on children of incarcerated parents is limited. Studies are primarily descriptive and do not focus on possible interventions that could ease the trauma suffered by these children. There has been very little research on the effects of interventions (Johnston, 1995; Wright amp; Seymour, 2000). Current opportunities to intervene on trauma suffered by children of incarcerated parents who are themselves involved with the criminal justice system are virtually nonexistent.


The proposed cross-sectional study employs a quasi-experimental, non-equivalent comparison group design. Youth ages 10 to 17, who (1) are on probation or deferred prosecution and (2) have one or both parents who are currently or have been incarcerated, will participate in a psychosocial therapeutic group for eight weeks. Youth who are clients of the Travis County Juvenile Probation Department will be recruited for the groups according to standard procedures there. Further, study participants will be recruited from the group members. Participation in the group will not be contingent on agreement to participate in the study. Group facilitators will use a manualized curriculum developed specifically for intervention with this population. Participants will be asked to complete a basic demographic survey (attachment 2) and two standardized instruments, the 8 Item Child/Adolescent Scale version (IES-8) of the Impact of Events Scale (IES), and the Inventory of Parent and Peer Attachment (IPPA).