Research: children and incarcerated parents

Assistant professor Rebecca Shlafer wants to help break the cycle of trauma for kids with incarcerated parents

Serving time in prison is stressful for inmates, but what kind of trau­ma do children experience when their parents are jailed? This ques­tion intrigued Rebecca Shlafer, a developmental child psychologist and assistant professor in the U of M’s Department of Pediatrics.

Shlafer does applied research into risk factors for children’s health, including having mentally ill or incarcerated parents. This area is especially pertinent be­cause 66 percent of male inmates and 77 percent of female inmates in Minnesota are parents. 

“Research shows that having incarcerated parents is associated with some level of trauma. How can we help break this cycle of trauma and dysfunction?” Shlafer asks. “It benefits mom and dad and the kids, and ultimately that benefits the community.”

With support from the Univer­sity’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute and donors like the Women’s Founda­tion of Minnesota, Shlafer can spend more time in the field. She does mul­tipronged research into the challenges faced by families with incarcerated parents, including evaluating the Minnesota Prison Doula Project, which supports and educates pregnant inmates.

Shlafer also investigated children’s visiting expe­riences at county jails. Her research led to changes in Washington County, where staff are working to make the environment more family friendly while main­taining security. That means reminding children to take one last potty stop and having kids’ books in the secure visiting area, where they can’t bring personal belongings and there is no bathroom.

“It makes sense that we would support this critical piece of who these parents are and help them be better connected to their kids,” says Shlafer, “so they don’t come back, and their kids don’t come back, 15 years later.”