DC Mayor Muriel Bowser speaks to inmates in Sept as she tours DC Central Jail in September. D.C. Council wants to study how children fare emtionally and academically when a parent is incarcerated. (J. Lawler Duggan/For The Washington Post)

The D.C. Council wants to study how parents’ incarceration affects their children’s performance in schools across the District and the types of supports that might help these students.

More than half of adults who are incarcerated in state and federal prisons have children at home under the age of 18, according to a national report.

“Often in the District of Columbia, we talk about the needs of returning citizens [from prison], but we have not explored the needs of their children,” said D.C. Council member David Grosso, chairman of the education committee, at a hearing on Thursday afternoon to discuss a new bill that would launch a study.

A bill, which was authored by D.C. Council member LaRuby May (Ward 8) and co-sponsored by 11 other council members, would require the mayor to hire a private firm to conduct an assessment of children who have at least one parent who is incarcerated. The assessment, due by March 2017, would evaluate the impact on their academic performance and recommend policies to meet the needs of affected children who are struggling academically.

As incarceration rates have grown in the United States, so have the number of families and children who are affected at home.

In 2008, an estimated 2.7 million children had a parent who was in jail or prison. That was 3.6 percent of children across the country, up from 0.8 percent in 1980, according to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

African American children are disproportionately affected, the study found. One in nine children has a parent who has been incarcerated. The rate is one in 28 for Hispanic children and one in 57 for white children.

The emotional and financial toll is high for families. Incarcerated parents are often separated from their children by long distances and for long periods of time.

The emotional and financial toll is high; the city wants to better understand how children fare academically in their absence.

At the hearing, a mother testified about how her two sons have struggled in the years since their father was incarcerated, losing focus at school and dealing with volatile emotions and self-esteem. She said it would help to have teachers who are more knowledgeable about what they are dealing with.

They experience “constant grief” without any closure, she said. “They grieve every time they talk to him.”

The number of children who are affected in the District is likely high in some neighborhoods, but it’s not a figure that schools track for privacy reasons and teachers or administrators often may not know.

Some people at the hearing testified about the ongoing stigma of incarceration and lengths some families will go to hide the status of an incarcerated parent.

Through the assessment, officials hope to get a sense of the scope of the population of children whose parents are incarcerated, while respecting privacy laws.