Having a parent sentenced to prison can be traumatic for children of any age. What can you do to reduce the impact on their lives and in what ways can the child maintain a connection to their parent?


This is perhaps the top concern for the parent facing confinement. The incarcerated parent does not automatically lose their visitation rights unless the court formally makes changes to the arrangement. If the child is a minor, whoever has guardianship of the child will need to escort them during visits.

However, the guardian isn’t legally obligated to bring the child in for regular visits – or ever. If this occurs, the incarcerated parent can file a lawsuit to compel the guardian to allow visits, but such cases can be lengthy and costly.

Equally, the child’s guardian can ask a judge to cancel parental and visitation rights for the incarcerated parent.

Child custody

Obviously, extended incarceration will mean losing custody of a child, if only temporarily.

If the parent with primary custody over the child is going to jail or prison, the court will likely grant custody to the other parent. If the other parent is unable or unwilling to take custody, then the court will review the alternatives and do whatever it deems best for the child. A close relative or family friend may take custody, but this individual must file a motion for temporary guardianship.

In cases of serious crimes, prison sentences will likely persist until long after the child has turned 18. As such, the incarcerated parent will lose custody permanently.

Child support

An incarcerated parent is still responsible for paying child support. There are several options, including through savings accounts, passive income, the sale of property or even welfare benefits.

If the incarcerated parent can demonstrate that they don’t have the means to continue payments, it’s possible for a judge to pause or modify a child support order.

Helpful resources

Washington publishes a family support and navigation guide, which covers frequently asked questions about staying connected to loved ones who are serving time. There are sections on telephone and mail policies, sending money, family emergencies, and of course visiting arrangements.