Reducing Barriers to Reunification for Children of Incarcerated Parents

Stoneleigh Fellow: Kathleen Creamer, 2012-2014


Children of incarcerated parents are a growing yet underserved population of vulnerable youth. While increasing attention has been paid to the needs of these children during parental incarceration, there is a notable gap in attention to the needs of these children once a parent is released. When a child is placed in the foster care system during a parent’s incarceration, the problems experienced by these families are compounded and policy and practice barriers exacerbate the challenge to successful reunification. Research has found that children of incarcerated parents experience trauma as well as social and economic barriers that can result in significant mental health issues, school failure, substance abuse and delinquency. When these children enter foster care, they are particularly vulnerable and at risk for poor outcomes.

Project Summary

Kathleen Creamer is working at the local level in Philadelphia and at the state level in Pennsylvania to improve the well-being of children and families when a parent is incarcerated and children are in foster care. The number of families experiencing involvement in both the child welfare and prison systems is growing. Although the exact number in Pennsylvania is not known, nationally almost ten percent of incarcerated women and two percent of incarcerated men have children in foster care. States and municipalities have begun to recognize the need to better coordinate services for these families, but few successful models exist. Kathleen aims to establish mechanisms for capturing needed data and advancing a coordinated service model to improve reunification outcomes for children of incarcerated parents in the child welfare system in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania.

Kathleen is working to improve the coordination of social work services for families involved with both the Philadelphia Department of Human Services (DHS) and Prison System (PPS). She has three primary strategies for achieving her goal at the local level.

  • First, she will convene a joint DHS/PPS task force to develop policy and implement practice changes for social workers with cases involving incarcerated parents.
  • Second, she will develop a new policy and practice guide for social workers with these cases.
  • Finally, she will create a discharge planning guide for parents leaving incarceration.