We have long understood that incarceration of a parent can be traumatizing for a child — something we know from both peer-reviewed research and anecdotal evidence. Sadly, 1 in 10 children in Michigan have experienced having a parent in jail or prison, according to a 2016 study from the Annie E. Casey foundation.

Children with an incarcerated parent were significantly more likely to report trauma and stress-related mental health issues, according to a study from researchers at the University of Cincinnati College of Nursing and the Abigail Wexner Research Institute at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, published in the Health & Justice Journal in August 2021. The study searched the medical charts of 2.3 million pediatric patients at a large Midwestern hospital-based institution between 2006 and 2020, searching for keywords to indicate that a family member was incarcerated.

As a result, it was determined that just 2 percent of the pediatric patients over that 15-year period had a personal experience with the justice system or had a close family member who had been incarcerated. However, that 2 percent accounted for the following portion of pediatric cases:

  • 52 percent of pediatric trauma diagnoses
  • 48 percent of stress-related diagnoses
  • 38 percent of psychotic disorder diagnoses
  • 33 percent of suicidal-related disorders

The study confirms what many people already know — either from their own experience with incarcerated loved ones, or from talking with people who grew up with a parent in prison. Stories of moms and dads cycling in and out of jail or being away for a decade or longer in prison are depressingly common among those who eventually become incarcerated themselves. Stories of a parent’s incarceration are often one trauma among many that point a person toward their own involvement with the justice system.

Children who have survived trauma may go on to develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a condition whose symptoms include nightmares, angry outbursts, being easily startled, avoiding places or reminders of a traumatic event and ongoing fear or sadness. PTSD originates in a traumatic event, which can include witnessing a crime or the loss of a close family member — including the virtual loss of them through incarceration.

Interrupting the trauma-to-prison cycle is an urgent need. However, finding and paying for trauma-informed mental help for children can be a challenging task. Thankfully, parents and guardians of children who have incarcerated parents may not have to navigate this task alone. Federal resources are available for children with PTSD.

The information below is provided by Disability Benefits Help, an organization that partners with attorneys and advocates to help people who are seeking to qualify for federal benefits, such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) that children with incarcerated parents may qualify for.  However, it should be noted that you may apply for benefits directly through the Social Security Administration.

Safe & Just Michigan and its staff aren’t experts on disability benefits. The information provided here is not legal advice, and Safe & Just Michigan cannot provide advice on how to apply for them — however, resources for people applying are listed at the end of this post.


How a Child with Trauma Can Qualify for Disability Benefits

It’s a terrible shame when children are traumatized, but every year thousands of children suffer through trauma and have resulting physical and mental health problems because of it. The Administration offers Supplemental Security Income benefits to the parents or guardians of children who have been through trauma to help ease the financial burden on the household. The money must be used for the child’s expenses, but it can alleviate financial stress on the parents.

Medically Qualifying for SSI Benefits Because Of Trauma

The Social Security Administration has strict medical criteria that must be met in order for the child to be approved for SSI benefits. All of the criteria that must be met along with the conditions that qualify for SSI are listed in the SSA’s Blue Book. The Blue Book Listing 112.15 says that in order for a child to qualify for SSI benefits because of trauma the child must meet these requirements:

  1. There must be medical documentation of the requirements of paragraph 1 or 2:
    1. Posttraumatic stress disorder, characterized by all of the following:
      1. Exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or violence;
      2. Subsequent involuntary re-experiencing of the traumatic event (for example, intrusive memories, dreams, or flashbacks);
      3. Avoidance of external reminders of the event;
      4. Disturbance in mood and behavior (for example, developmental regression, socially withdrawn behavior); and
      5. Increases in arousal and reactivity (for example, exaggerated startle response, sleep disturbance).
    2. Reactive attachment disorder, characterized by two or all of the following:
      1. Rarely seeks comfort when distressed;
      2. Rarely responds to comfort when distressed; or
      3. Episodes of unexplained emotional distress.


  1. Extreme limitation of one, or marked limitation of two, of the following areas of mental functioning:
    1. Understand, remember, or apply information).
    2. Interact with others
    3. Concentrate, persist, or maintain pace
    4. Adapt or manage oneself


  1. Your mental disorder in this listing category is “serious and persistent;” that is, you have a medically documented history of the existence of the disorder over a period of at least two years, and there is evidence of both:
    1. Medical treatment, mental health therapy, psychosocial support(s), or a highly structured setting(s) that is ongoing and that diminishes the symptoms and signs of your mental disorder; and
    2. Marginal adjustment, that is, you have minimal capacity to adapt to changes in your environment or to demands that are not already part of your daily life.

It’s best to review the Blue Book with your child’s doctor to make sure they qualify. Many claims are denied due to a lack of medical evidence, so you use the Blue Book as a guide to make sure you have all necessary documentation.

There are also financial requirements that the parents or guardians of the child must meet.

Financial Requirements

The SSA requires that the total combined income for all adults in the household that work full time not exceed the income cap that it has set. So, all adults in the household that work full time will need to submit a W-2 or a copy of a Federal tax return that shows their income so the SSA can see that the household income falls under the cap. The income cap varies based on number of adults in the household and how many children there are.

Filing a Claim

You can file a claim for SSI benefits for a child online, or you can apply in person at any SSA branch office. Make sure you have all medical documents supporting your child’s claim as well as any proof of income. The application process can take some time, so don’t delay.



https://www.ssa.gov/disability/professionals/bluebook/112.00-MentalDisorders-Childhood.htm – 112_15





~ Barbara Wieland