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How People-First Language Helps Children with Incarcerated Family Members

Sep 14, 2021
teen sitting with hands folded

According to a report of the National Survey on Children’s Health, 1 in 14 youth in the U.S. will have an incarcerated parent at some point during their childhood. This means you or your family probably know a child with an incarcerated parent. 

Children with incarcerated family members often face discrimination or disapproval from others in society, based on their perceived differences. These children also tend to distrust systems like the social justice system and health care system. These factors can cause children to be afraid to talk about their situation. 

Recent articles in the American Journal of Epidemiology and the Journal of the American Medical Association have taken a hard look at how people-first language can and should be used in the health care setting to help combat children’s distrust of systems that are ultimately put in place to help them. 

People-First Language

The people-first movement began in the 1980s with the goal to do away with labels given to individuals with chronic (long-lasting) illness or disability. For example, “person with autism” rather than “autistic person” or “person with diabetes” rather than “diabetic person.” By 2007, person-first language made its way into the criminal justice space when the late Eddie Ellis, a well-known criminal justice advocate, wrote the following:

“We are asking everyone to stop using these negative terms and to simply refer to us as PEOPLE. People currently or formerly incarcerated, PEOPLE on parole, PEOPLE recently released from prison, PEOPLE in prison, PEOPLE with criminal convictions, but PEOPLE.” – Eddie Ellis, founder and director of the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions, “An Open Letter to Our Friends on the Question of Language”

By 2016, The Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs announced that it would begin to use person-first language, such as “person who committed a crime” or “individual who was incarcerated” in place of “felon” or “convict.”

Child-Friendly Language

How would the lives of children of incarcerated parents be improved if we all dedicated ourselves to using people-first language?

From doctor’s offices to schools and everything in between, we can all take these simple steps to destigmatize incarceration and improve outcomes for children everywhere:

  • Focus on relationships to describe family members with criminal justice involvement, i.e., father, mother, brother, sister, aunt, uncle.
  • Use “visit” or “visiting” rather than “visitation.” Using “visitation” signals to children that their visit is different, an experience that is observed, restricted and should not be talked about.

Remember, our words matter. To learn more about the health equity and population health efforts at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, click here.

Featured Expert

Nationwide Children's Hospital Medical Professional
Kelly J. Kelleher, MD
Center for Innovation in Pediatric Practice

Dr. Kelleher is a pediatrician whose research interests focus on accessibility, effectiveness and quality of health care services for children and their families, especially those affected by mental disorders, substance abuse or violence. He has a longstanding interest in formal outcomes research for mental health and substance abuse services.

Rosemary Martoma
Rosemary Martoma, MD
Primary Care Pediatrics

Rosemary Martoma, MD, MBChB, is a board-certified pediatrician trained in trauma-informed care and practicing at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Assistant Professor at The Ohio State University College of Medicine, and president of KidsMates Inc., a national nonprofit focused on advancing childhood equity.

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700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.