Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Leadership PhD

First Advisor

Sylvia Gonzalez

Second Advisor

Shirley A. Freed

Third Advisor

Gary Gifford


Problem. Parental incarceration affects millions of children, and their numbers continue to rise. By losing their parents, children can be exposed to unique risks, relative to the separation. Many children face family structure disintegration, and this can be so disruptive that their normal development is impaired. Evidence suggests that children are impacted psychologically, socially, and financially. The result is the display of problematic behavior, being aggressive or withdrawn at home and in their communities. The concentration of the incarceration trends seems to be in poor African-American communities. Incarceration has left higher numbers of children without parents, making the collateral damage greater.

Method. This research was designed as a qualitative, multiple-case study. It addressed the questions: How do African-American young adults describe the impact of parental incarceration on their lives, and how were they able to overcome the difficult situation and graduate from high school? This qualitative study used data from semi-structured interviews as a means to explore the lives of the African-American young adults who experienced parental incarceration during childhood. Twelve individuals (18 years or older) participated in the interviews. The real-life social context was covered in depth and scope for each case under study. Their rich cases identified the underlying issues that surfaced in their lives. All the cases were addressed through the home, school, and community environments, utilizing the participants‘ voices and perspectives. Participants were selected by referrals from a diverse group of professionals. Each young person volunteered to participate in this project.

Results. The results of this study indicate that the African-American young adults shared similar experiences regardless of slight variations in the risks and adverse conditions within their homes. The 12 individuals were connected by the common thread of parental incarceration that exposed them to negative consequences. Their responses determined that the following findings were most critical: (a) family system, (b) local community, and (c) their own personal strengths. Family bonds were strong. The participants sought support and received it from aunts, uncles, brothers, and cousins. Not one child entered foster care during the father‘s imprisonment. Mothers and/or grandmothers were the primary caregivers. Grandmothers became surrogate parents when a significant number of mothers worked multiple jobs, attended school or needed time to regain balance in their lives. The church was the place where the children found normalcy, acceptance, purpose, stability, safety, father figures and the absence of judgments because of their fathers. In the majority of cases, it was grandmothers who introduced them to church influences. School gave meaningful support and became a refuge for the 12 children. This is where they felt safe and free from the anxieties of their home environments. These children received inspiration and encouragement from administrators and teachers who pushed and challenged them to achieve academic success. Key supportive relationships and the act of telling their stories with candor reinforced their resiliency, completed their past, and inspired them in their pursuit of a successful adult life.

Conclusion. African-American young children, who were exposed to parental incarceration during their childhood, were able to become resilient in spite of their adverse circumstances due to a strong family support system, and a caring community in their schools and churches. Their own individual strengths were also crucial in their development as good society members.

Subject Area

Children of prisoners, African American children, African American young adults, African American prisoners, African American families.