“We live in a country where we have huge numbers of children exposed to parental incarceration. When we talk about the need to reform the criminal justice and mass incarceration systems, we also need to talk about the unintended victims of the current system,” says Christine Leibbrand of the University of Washington. “Incarceration exposes families to poverty and disadvantage, and the system can self-perpetuate inequality.”
About 3.5% of U.S. children under age 18—or one child in every classroom of about 29 students—had a parent behind bars in 2015, mainly their fathers.1
Black children were more than five times more likely than white children to be separated from a parent by incarceration, report sociologists Bryan Sykes of University of California, Irvine and Becky Pettit of University of Texas at Austin. These patterns reflect a system that disproportionately imprisons disadvantaged and minority men, they argue.
A growing body of research documents the toll U.S. incarceration takes on the families of those imprisoned, widening disparities and exacerbating existing disadvantages. New research supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development provides further evidence on the wide-ranging ways a parent’s incarceration shapes the lives and life chances of their partners and children, from the neighborhoods where they live to the levels of adversity their children experience.
Children whose fathers were incarcerated move more frequently and live in neighborhoods that are more socioeconomically disadvantaged than their peers whose fathers have never been in prison, find Leibbrand and Erin Carll of the University of Washington, Angela Bruns of the University of Michigan now at Gonzaga University, and Hedwig Lee of Washington University in St. Louis.2
Using data from the national Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study—research following thousands of families in 20 large U.S. cities since 1998—the team examined the neighborhoods of children whose fathers were in prison or recently released. Families with a father currently or recently in prison tend to live in neighborhoods with higher percentages of residents who are single mothers, receive public assistance, lack a high school diploma, and live below the poverty line, they show.
The financial hardship families with imprisoned members face, researchers say, perpetuates what they call “downward mobility.” A father in prison is one less wage earner at home or paying child support. Families with limited income have fewer choices of where to live, they may move often, and the neighborhoods they end up in may be marked by lower quality schools, greater unemployment, and higher rates of crime and violence, Leibbrand and her colleagues report.
“When we think about where people live or move to, we think of people weighing the pros and cons of different places. That’s far too simple. Many families may be forced to move because of eviction or budget constraints, for example, and these forced moves are often to worse neighborhoods where families have little choice of where they would like to live,” says Leibbrand.
Mothers with incarcerated partners are more likely to work multiple jobs than women in otherwise similar circumstances, finds Bruns in another study.3
Partner incarceration is linked to additional employment—a third shift—on top of the paid work and caregiving women already do, she finds, based on analysis of Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study data.
An additional job may cover basic expenses but also compounds the burden that women with incarcerated partners already shoulder, she points out.
“Staying in touch and supporting an inmate—responding to his requests for food, clothing and books, preparing packages to the correctional institution’s specifications, coordinating family member visits, and keeping up with legal cases and appeals—can feel like a second job in and of itself,” explains Bruns.
Mothers with partners who are incarcerated usually have sole responsibility for children who may be “struggling with the absence of their fathers,” according to Bruns. Holding multiple jobs is also a known stressor that could raise mothers’ risk of stress-related health conditions.
Low-skilled women are often stuck in low-wage, dead-end jobs that can barely pay the bills, she asserts.
“Balancing multiple work roles in addition to family member incarceration may keep women from going to school or participating in other activities that improve their socioeconomic standing over the long-term,” writes Bruns.
Youth ages 11 to 17 who experience the incarceration of a parent are more likely to have behavioral problems or mental health issues than their counterparts whose parents have never been jailed, Samantha J. Boch, Barbara L. Warren, and Jodi L. Ford of Ohio State University show.4
The team finds that household poverty plays a role, as does the number of traumatic events the young person has experienced, including homelessness, eviction, foster care, and serious injury or death in the family. Overall, they find that youth who deal with the incarceration of a parent experience three times as many adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) as their unaffected peers.
The researchers base their analysis on interviews with more than 600 parents or other caregivers participating in the Adolescent Development in Context study, a representative sample of Columbus, Ohio, and its surrounding suburbs.
The behavioral problems and mental health issues exhibited more frequently in children who experience a parent’s incarceration include poor attention, excessive anxiety, and externalizing behaviors such as rule breaking, temper outbursts, and property destruction, the analysis finds.
The researchers examined a wide-ranging set of 30 ACEs that includes aspects of financial distress and household churning or instability such as changes in household composition (for example, when a parent or parent’s new partner leaves or joins the household or when a child goes to live with grandparents) and residential moves.
“Well-documented research investigating the cumulative effect of ACEs indicates that youth exposed to parental incarceration may have a much greater likelihood for engaging in maladaptive coping behaviors (such as cigarette, alcohol, and illicit drug use, or violent delinquent behaviors) and experiencing depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder across the lifespan,” the researchers report.
They argue that mental health providers should view a parent’s incarceration as an important consideration of the child’s and family’s well-being that warrants continued observation, support, and follow-up. More research is needed to determine the best ways to screen and identify these youths using non-stigmatizing approaches that build on their strengths, they suggest.
Among young adults with an incarcerated parent, those who had a high need for parental approval were more likely to identify themselves as a troublemaker or partier during young adulthood than those who were emotionally independent, a recent study finds.5
Self-identities influence behavior, including criminal activity, making understanding the precursors of self-identity important to interventions designed to improve the life prospects of children with incarcerated parents, according to the researchers Jessica G. Finkeldey of the State University of New York at Fredonia, and Monica A. Longmore, Peggy C. Giordano, and Wendy D. Manning of Bowling Green State University.
The team examined publicly available incarceration records and analyzed data from the Toledo Adolescent Relationships Study, a regional survey of more than 900 men and women ages 18 to 28 interviewed five times between 2001 and 2011.
Developing “high emotional independence, or values, beliefs, and identities in contrast to and separate from an incarcerated parent,” may set young adults on a path shaped by different choices than those made by their incarcerated parent, the researchers suggest.
“It is possible that exposing children of incarcerated parents to positive role models and mentors, such as through mentorship programs, might help to reduce the transmission of antisocial identities and behaviors and should be investigated,” says Finkeldey.
This article was produced under a grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). The work of researchers from the following NICHD-funded population dynamics research centers was highlighted in this article: University of Washington, University of Michigan, Ohio State University, Bowling Green State University, and University of Texas at Austin.