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Explaining the Empathy Gap

Empathy can be defined as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another” (Merriam-Webster). It can further be understood that our empathic processes are automatically elicited and our interpretation is filtered through our own life experiences while still recognizing that the source of the emotion is not our own (Cuff, Brown, Taylor, & Howat, 2016).

Dr. Scopelliti (2015) states that the difficulty arising from an empathy gap is that there is a problem in being able to engage in the emotional perspective-taking that empathy requires. First, we have trouble imagining how we would feel in another person’s shoes, and second we are not good at imaging how other people would respond to things because we assume they would respond in the same way that we might.

Empathy connects us to one another and empathy allows us to care about each other. Without empathy there is no connection between people; if there is no connection it is difficult for people to care.

Unless someone has been personally impacted by incarceration, the general public finds it difficult to care about those who are incarcerated, often believing they have nothing in common with them. However, over 1.2 million people who are incarcerated identify as being parents (Glaze & Maruschak, 2011). They may also further identify as aunts, uncles, masons, chefs, barbers, and nurses among other identities in which most of the general public can find a commonality.

Closing the empathy gap is important for children impacted by parental incarceration because we must model to their peers, our children, that they are just as worthy, valued, and loved as if they were our own children. The hope of Every Single Kid is to provide insight into how these children feel, their hopes for their futures, and the dreams their parents hold for them. By providing this insight through their artwork, words, and other expressions we hope to work on closing the empathy gap that currently exists. Every Single Kid believes that surrounding children who have incarcerated parents with the stability, encouragement, and hope they need will increase their resiliency to cope with the emotional trauma of parental incarceration.

Trauma, Attachment, and Parental Incarceration

The imprisonment of a parental figure has far reaching repercussions, that cannot be predicted, but forever alter a child’s life. Each child’s story and circumstance is different and must be honored, yet, the repercussion in each story begins with the loss of a parent to prison. Working for many years with children and families impacted by parental incarceration I have born witness to and found that losing a parent to prison is not a singular event; rather it is a dynamic process that unfolds throughout one’s lifetime.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACEs) conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente (Felitti & Anda, 2010) found that “certain experiences are major risk factors for the leading causes of illness and death as well as poor quality of life” (2014). The last question on the survey is whether or not the individual grew up with a parent in prison (Felitti & Anda, 2010). The ACE study found that the experience of parental incarceration contributes greatly to a fragmented foundation in a child’s life that leads to adverse effects in adulthood.

Understanding the expansive impact of parental incarceration on a child requires a review of the short-term effects of the witnessing of the arrest and separation of the child from the parent (Dallaire & Wilson, 2009) along with the impact on the parent child attachment due to the unavailability of the parent to the child during the incarceration (Bowlby, 1973). The arrest of a parent rarely comes as an outlying event in the landscape of the child’s life experience. However, a child witnessing his/her parent’s arrest can develop symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder: nightmares, flashbacks, hypervigilance, aggressiveness, trauma re-enactment, and becoming withdrawn (Bocknek, 2009). The children in this population will demonstrate a range of internalizing and externalizing behaviors and emotions; rage, sadness, guilt, anxiety, disrupted attachment, decreased academic performance along with the symptoms consistent with posttraumatic stress disorder (Bocknek, 2009). The child is no longer able to seek comfort from that parent and access him or her when wanted and needed. The child loses his/her sense of security and his/her understanding of safety and unconditional parental access is marred. He/She no longer can cry out for mommy or daddy and get the response she needs.

Bowlby wrote (1973) that there are several instinctive behavioral systems that contribute to an individual’s survival that includes attachment and caregiving. He pointed that a key contributor to a child’s attachment is the proximity to a protective attachment figure (Bowlby, 1982). Some children impacted by parental incarceration are considered ‘lucky’ because their parent is housed at a correctional facility within a comforting distance, a distance (less than an hour away) that allows them to make consistent visits, perhaps a few times a year. Other children go years without seeing their parent because the distance, or transportation burden, is too great. In 2004, 83.6% of parents incarcerated in a federal facility were housed over 101 miles away from their children; 42.4% were farther than 500 miles away, and 60.3% of parents incarcerated in state facilities were housed over 101 miles away (Schirmer, Nellis, & Mauer 2009). During the time their parent is ‘doing time’, the attachment insecurity continues to grow for the child. The homes they are living in may not be safe, the neighborhoods may be hazardous, school attendance inconsistent, the teachers do not understand why that child ‘just won’t be good’ when no one has told them that the child is grieving the loss of their parent. The pediatrician is too expensive, the sports fee is unattainable, and the shoes from last year will have to do even though they are two sizes too small. Many children impacted by their parents incarcerated are often plunged into poverty with the loss of supportive income and/or when they are placed with financially unprepared caregivers (The Pew Charitable Trusts, 2010). When speaking to the NAACP in July 2015, President Barack Obama declared that “We have to have the same standards for those children as we have for our own children” regarding children impacted by crime and incarcerated parents.

Parental incarceration is not a new phenomenon. As of 2010 there were approximately 2 million children who had parents in prison; this figure nearly doubles the estimate from 1991 and does not include children with parents in city and county jails (London, 2009). There are approximately 10 million children in the United States who at some point in their childhoods, have experienced a parent being incarcerated either in a prison or jail (The Pew Charitable Trusts, 2010). However, there is no formal data on the exact numbers of children impacted. The aforementioned numbers are self-reports by the incarcerated parents through the Economic Mobility Project and the Public Safety Performance Project by The Pew Charitable Trusts. Many incarcerated parents may choose not to identify that they have minor children due to the stigma and concerns regarding their children becoming involved with State custody and control.

Parental incarceration is beginning to be identified as a risk marker for future maladaptation. Children with incarcerated mothers are 2.5 times more likely to become incarcerated themselves and 3 times more likely to be incarcerated as adults when compared to children whose mothers were never incarcerated (Dallaire, Zeman, & Thrash, 2015). Although incarceration is yet to be understood completely as a risk mechanism, maternal incarceration denotes other risk markers for a child (low income, housing instability) and the risk mechanism of maternal incarceration clues a unique risk for the child that commands attention.

The development of a child with an incarcerated parent is impacted by the attachment disruption. The sudden loss of a parent breaks down a child’s understanding of who is going to take care of him/her, overwhelming the child with confusion and fear. Bowlby (1973) posits that children develop less than optimal representations of relationships when attachment figures are not available due to prolonged separations or a discontinuity in caregivers occurs.  Many children impacted by parental incarceration face very quick changes in their lives and routines; changes in schools, homes, caregivers, friends, neighborhoods, and lifestyles. These sudden changes impact children’s understanding of themselves, where they fit in, and who they can trust. A child’s attachment mode determines much of his/her interaction with the rest of the world and subsequent decision making skills. Maintaining healthy attachment is an integral piece to inhibiting future poor social and emotional decision making and increasing protective factors for these children (Dallaire, 2006). The healthy attachment can be with either the substitute caregiver, incarcerated parent, or other consistent adult in the child’s life. In addition to healthy attachments, surrounding a child impacted by parental incarceration with positive social supports (connectedness) and talking about hopefulness with them can lead to an increase in their protective factors (Hagen & Myers, 2003, Hagen, Myers, & Mackintosh, 2005). Protective factors lead to an improvement in the resiliency of a child which fosters self-regulation skills that enable a child to direct their attention, manage emotions, keep track of rules, inhibit their impulses, and control their behavior in other adaptive ways. Resilience should thus be seen as a developmental process; children cannot achieve healthy development on their own, they are in need of supports from their family, communities, and child-centered policies. The complexity of these children’s lives demands equally complex service provisions.


Mass Incarceration and Transformative Justice

To understand the scope of the problems that children with incarcerated parents face, you must first be able to grasp the origins of mass incarceration in America and how it impacted entire families and communities. 

Harvard Criminal Law Professor Carol Steiker gives a brief background in her introduction on the causes, consequences, and exit strategies to mass incarceration. Since 1972 the incarceration rate in America has increased fivefold to more than 716 per 100,000 people.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

In the 1970s there was a monumental push for “tough on crime” laws which led to unprecedented sentencing guidelines, especially for drugs, and lengthy sentences for nonviolent crimes. Lawyer and Professor Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness discusses how the so-called War on Drugs single handedly drove much of the increase in incarceration rates. Professor Alexander also examines the disproportionate impact these laws and sentencing guidelines had, and continue to have, on the African American community. She states that these policies had a broad impact on fundamental rights and access to services such as: “the right to vote, to serve on juries, to receive public benefits, to be free from discrimination in employment and housing, and to earn wages free from garnishment as fees or fines.” She argues that “these cumulative effects demonstrate that mass incarceration, together with Jim Crow and slavery before it, have operated as tightly networked systems of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race.”

This 2010 graph from is a visual representation of the racial disparities of incarceration.



On July 14, 2015 then President Barack Obama, tweeted that



Estimates from The Pew Charitable Trusts surveys (2010) state that U.S. children who have experienced having a parent in the criminal justice system reach over 10 million. Also noted is that 50% of children who have an incarcerated parent are under the age of 10 (Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count, 2016).

Author, professor, and activist James Kilgore was incarcerated for 6 years in a California prison after being extradited from South Africa in 2002. He has since written books and given interviews on his perspective about how mass incarceration is the “biggest domestic policy debacle”. In his book Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time, he is careful to note that “mass incarceration is not just about the number of people behind bars – there are lots of dots to connect.”

He discusses the concept of transformative justice (rather than restorative justice). He points out that restorative justice techniques are useful “in low-level conflicts, particularly at the neighborhood level. They offer ways to heal the wounds of harm. But the harms wrought by mass incarceration require much more than individuals accepting responsibility for their actions and making amends” (Law, 2015, October 1). He goes on to delineate that transformative justice would require “apologies…from the perpetrators of mass incarceration, those who designed it, those who made money from it. But more importantly, we need to see a massive payment of reparations to communities that have been devastated by having large numbers of their residents carted off to prison. Some people call this justice reinvestment. This means funding education, job creation, child care, counseling, substance abuse counseling, mental health care – a whole range of services…that are vital to reverse the negative impact of mass incarceration.” (Law, 2015, October 1) He goes on to illustrate that America must stop dumping individuals released from “prison out onto the street and expect them and the under-resourced communities where they live, to prosper” (Law, 2015, October 1).

Connecting another dot from Transformative Justice, education policymakers examine various ways to diminish the achievement gap in classrooms through talking about how to alter what is happening inside the classroom. However, Economic Policy Institute (EPI) research associate, Leila Morsy, declared that “making changes to criminal-justice policy can make as much, if not more, of a difference [for children].” The EPI has produced reports that show how the impact of having an incarcerated parent translates to learning obstacles and health challenges for children. “After a parent is imprisoned, children’s grade-point averages fall, as the likelihood of dropping out of school rises. Compared to children of non-incarcerated parents, these youth show a higher incidence of anxiety (51 percent more likely) and depression (43 percent), and are considerably more likely to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (72 percent), attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (48 percent), and behavioral issues (43 percent).” The report identified these specific challenges as greatly interfering with a child’s ability to learn in the classroom, subsequently widening the achievement gap.

Changes must occur for the cycle of incarceration and decimation of families and communities to end.

But where do we even begin?

Perhaps, as Professor Alexander said, our biggest hurdle for stimulating any transformative change is by first closing the “empathy gap” that obstinately exists between the “law abiding and the criminally convicted”.

Parental Incarceration, the Community, and the Child

The impact of taking individuals out of a community and incarcerating them does not just affect the incarcerated individual but all the people that are involved in their lives: their children, family, significant others, friends, neighbors, employers, etc. 

Residents of neighborhoods with high incarceration rates endure disproportionate stress, since these communities face disrupted social and family networks alongside elevated rates of crime and infectious diseases. (The Atlantic: How Incarceration Infects a Community)

Only recently have scholars begun to re-image incarceration as an ecological variable rather than just a consequence to a behavior. Researchers used data from the Detroit Neighborhood Study and found that, after controlling for individual- and neighborhood-level factors including: history of incarceration, age, gender, race, personal income, trauma exposure, percentage of household incomes less than $25,000, and violent-crime rate –

“the effect of neighborhood-level incarceration on mental health is similar for individuals with and without a history of incarceration.” (Hatzenbuehler, et al., 2015)

These findings provide evidence that there is a relationship between neighborhoods significantly impacted by incarceration and mental health that is independent of whether or not an individual has experienced the prison system themselves. This highlights the proliferation of the impacts of incarceration and how incarceration can be detrimental to the livelihood of communities. These findings showcase the need for not only large systems change but also the importance of supporting those left behind by the incarcerated. Especially their children.

There is a cumulative emotional stress which results from high incarceration rates in a community. This long-term stress may generate feedback loops that can induce substance abuse and other behaviors associated with poor mental health, and in turn lead to future intergenerational incarcerations.

Children growing up in families impacted by incarceration have shortened life expectancies. The long-term health disparities that these children face can be mitigated through intervention programming in the communities and supported longterm by policy changes. (A Plague of Prisons).

The growing research regarding the adverse experience of parental incarceration and its potential to lead to future negative outcomes relies heavily on statistical outcomes from educational data, juvenile justice statistics, and caregiver perspectives (Dallaire, 2007; Grossman et al., Jenson, 1997; Krisberg & Temin, 2001; Reed & Reed, 1997;  1992;  Rutter, 1987; Werner & Smith, 1992). It is the belief of Every Single Kid, that if we are to learn anything about the need for policy changes, resource strengthening, and the needs of the child, we must first listen to the child; hear their story, learn from their insight, and work together to build bridges for their success.

In 2003 the San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership (SFCIPP) developed a Bill of Rights aimed at improving how children with incarcerated parents are treated and viewed. The Council on Crime and Justice wrote that “minor children of parents under some form of criminal justice control are among the most at-risk, yet least visible, populations of children.” The United States has just 4.4 percent of the world’s population but the highest percentage of the world’s incarcerated at 22 percent (Walmsley, 2013). Despite the highest incarceration rate in the world and an overwhelming population of children impacted by their parent’s incarceration, our society pays little prolonged attention to the children that live on the frayed edges of our society.

The SFCIPP developed the Bill of Rights for Children with Incarcerated Parents in response to the numerous court cases that have delineated the Rights of the Prisoner. Although The Rights of the Prisoner are limited and difficult to enforce, they are legally recognized (Prisoner’s Rights, n.d.). The children of these incarcerated individuals are guaranteed nothing yet are forced to forfeit their homes, schools, neighborhoods, public perception, self-image, safety, and their parents.

The Bill of Rights are highlighted on the main page of this website and set the foundation for which Every Single Kid was created. The eight Bill of Rights for Children of Incarcerated Parents from the SFCIPP (2003) are:

  1. I have the right to be kept safe and informed at the time of my parent’s arrest
  2. I have the right to be heard when decisions are made about me
  3. I have the right to be considered when decisions are made about my parent
  4. I have the right to be well cared for in my parent’s absence
  5. I have the right to speak with, see and touch my parent
  6. I have the right to support as I face my parent’s incarceration
  7. I have the right not to be judged, blamed or labeled because my parent is incarcerated
  8. I have the right to a lifelong relationship with my parent.