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Anna Shaw

Children of Prison Dads: How Art Therapy Can Heal

Anna Shaw, “The Sentence,” Ink on paper, 2004, 8 x 10 in.

       Today in the age of divorce, cancer, AIDS, and addictions, an increasing number of children experience the loss of a parent. When a parent dies there are often comforting stories of heaven, angels, and being among family members who have gone before. But when a child’s parent is sentenced to prison there are no such comforts; there are no stories of “going to a better place.”  Many caregivers respond by remaining silent about the missing parent’s incarceration. Although their intention is to protect the children, silence can do more harm than good. Kids need information in order to understand why Mom or Dad can no longer be with them. Without honest conversations, imagination can take over. With TV shows like Cops dramatizing violent arrests and news channels broadcasting police brutality, a child’s mind will envision the worst possible scenario. This thesis developed within the context of these current realities.

            Working as an art therapy intern in a Chicago public school, I encountered surprising numbers of students who were living without fathers due to incarceration. The relationship between father and child is broken prematurely at the time of arrest or prison sentencing. Shame in the family often breeds silence, leaving the traumatic events unprocessed and Dad’s absence a mystery. Western culture’s traditional disregard for the father as nurturer allows the silence to continue. Society tells us that these children will not suffer as long as a mother is present. This false belief negates the emotional need that children have for their missing fathers. As a challenge to traditional attitudes, this thesis presents evidence of emotional scarring and maladaptive behaviors that evolve from the loss of incarcerated fathers.

         Art therapists can help these children process the trauma and grief that comes with Dad’s absence. Art therapy can be used to reach the children of prison dads by teaching healthy coping skills and self-care, and working toward an individual’s inherent potential. Using case studies from a school-based art therapy program and research by health care professionals working with similar populations, this thesis presents how art therapy can serve children who grieve for their absent fathers.


         Anna Shaw received a BA in Fine Arts and English from Bucknell University in 2002. While at SAIC, she worked with adults with developmental disabilities and mental illness at the Anixter Center in Chicago, and as part of the Child Life Specialist team in a New Jersey children’s hospital working with pediatric inpatients.


Thesis Advisor: Randy Vick, Associate Professor, Chair, Art Therapy

Thesis Reader: Bonnie Kerness





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