Effects of parental incarceration on child outcomes

This paper was submitted to Brigham Young University in April 2011 and may not be reproduced in any way without my permission.

The imprisonment rate in the United States has increased drastically over the last three decades. With the increasing proportion of inmates who are incarcerated for drug offenses, which now carry mandatory minimum sentences, many children now have parents in prison. The Bureau of Justice estimated in 1991 that approximately 1.5 million children have an incarcerated parent; although the majority of these parents are fathers, a growing population of mothers are imprisoned. Of the 200,000 women in prison in 2006, as much as 70% had children under the age of 18. The effects of parental imprisonment on child outcomes have been well-studied, but the trends in mass incarceration and the increasing proportion of incarcerated mothers necessitates further research.

Since 2000, sociologists, psychologists, and child welfare advocates have in large measure turned to qualitative, in-depth studies to gain insight into the effects of parental incarceration as perceived by children and their caregivers. The small sample size of these studies limits the extent to which data can be generalized, but there is nevertheless important information to be gleaned from this research. Conversely, studies with larger sample sizes have relied on extensive data analysis to compare variables; these quantitative studies are excellent sources for a range of statistics on parental imprisonment and its effects on child outcomes. Though there is a growing body of research on maternal incarceration in particular and the unique problems it poses for caregivers, this is a relatively new area of sociology. The rapid but recent growth in the number of mothers who are imprisoned has not been studied to the same extent as paternal incarceration. Here we will examine some of the existing literature on the effects of parental imprisonment, with a special focus on mothers in prison, as well as the issues parental imprisonment raises for child care. In order to focus on the most recent data available, the scope of this literature review is limited to studies published since 2001.

Children with incarcerated parents are more likely than their peers to have behavioral problems. These problems manifest tend to manifest themselves differently for boys and girls. In a secondary analysis by Wilbur et al. (2007), children aged 6-11 years old were interviewed to determine their self-reported depression levels. Participants were part of a longitudinal study examining the effects of intrauterine cocaine exposure. Children who had incarcerated fathers had significantly higher self-reported depression scores compared to children who did not have incarcerated fathers. Additionally, after administering questionnaires about behavior problems to participants’ school teachers, a strong correlation was found between paternal incarceration and externalizing behaviors. A major finding of the study was that girls were more likely to self-report internalizing behaviors, such as depression, in relation to paternal incarceration, whereas boys were more likely to be reported to have externalizing behaviors, such as aggression and hyperactivity. However, because the research was drawn from a larger study of intrauterine substance exposure, its primary purpose was not to look in-depth into the effects of parental incarceration; rather, it was intended to be an exploratory beginning and a starting point for further research.

In addition to experiencing negative emotional and behavioral effects from parental imprisonment, children with incarcerated parents suffer social and material disadvantages, which can further detriment child well-being. As part of the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing study, Geller, Garfinkel, Cooper, and Mincy (2009) interviewed parents at the birth of their child and again when the child was one and three years old. Geller et al. found that fathers and mothers who were incarcerated were less likely to be employed by the child’s third birthday, worked less consistently, and earned less than parents who had never been imprisoned. Thus, following paternal incarceration, children were more likely to receive public assistance, experience material hardship, and experience significant residential instability. These socioeconomic outcomes were also related to increased aggression in boys whose fathers were imprisoned. Though the separation of risk factors, causes, and effects is nearly impossible, it is clear that parental incarceration is correlated both with economic troubles and behavioral problems for children.

Parental incarceration has far-reaching effects for families, who are likely to experience a wide variety of hardships when a parent is imprisoned. Wildeman and Western (2010) argued that previous research ignored the spillover effects of incarceration, including the financial burden placed on both the ex-inmate and the ex-inmate’s family. Regarding the economic strain of imprisonment, Wildeman and Western found that incarceration diminished men’s total earnings by up to 30%, and that men were 14% less likely to contribute financially to their families with small children upon release than their peers who had never been in prison. Consistent with other research, the study showed that boys were more likely than girls to become aggressive after experiencing parental incarceration. It also discussed the strong correlation between parental incarceration and boys’ criminality and delinquency. According to the researchers, this intergenerational transmission of crime is one of the most troubling effects of incarceration, particularly in light of the ever-increasing number of imprisoned parents.

Imprisonment rates have consistently been shown to be higher for non-white and low-class individuals, which means that socioeconomically disadvantaged children are at a higher risk for parental incarceration and for suffering the negative outcomes associated with this experience. Wildeman (2009) estimated the risk of parental imprisonment for black and white children, born in 1978 and in 1990, from birth to age 14. He found that parental incarceration had emerged as an important childhood risk for black children, though it remained uncommon for white children. The risk of maternal imprisonment increased slightly for both races, but remained small, whereas the risk of paternal imprisonment was already high for blacks—1 in 7 black children born in 1978 had a father sent to prison by their 14th birthday—and climbed by 1990 to 1 in 4. Beyond racial differences in imprisonment rates, Wildeman examined the risk of incarceration by education level. Pronounced race and class inequalities were visible; while 1 in 25 white children of high school dropouts experienced paternal incarceration, 1 in 14 black children of college-educated parents experienced paternal incarceration. By 1990, black children were about equally as likely to have a college-educated father as to have a father sent to prison. Paternal incarceration therefore became a fairly common risk for black children, and this risk could further disadvantage children and exacerbate existing social inequalities.

There may be additional emotional, economic, and legal risks for children whose mothers are imprisoned. Dallaire (2007a) reviewed existing literature on maternal incarceration and found that despite the average prison sentence being three years, most courts assumed that guardianship arrangements made by incarcerated mothers would be adequate for meeting a child’s needs. No federal, state, or local agencies were responsible for obtaining information on children separated from their mothers during maternal imprisonment, yet nearly three-quarters of children with incarcerated mothers were displaced from their homes, and most changed their living arrangements at least once during the prison sentence. This discontinuity of care led to a higher risk of academic failure for children; one cited study found that a third of incarcerated mothers in the sample had at least one child who had been held back a grade in school. Risk factors accumulated as children of incarcerated mothers grew older. Adolescents with mothers in prison were found to be more likely than their peers to be connected to deviant or delinquent subcultures, to be sexually promiscuous, and to drop out of school—all risk factors for criminal activity.

Indeed, maternal incarceration more than paternal incarceration seems to be predictive of negative child outcomes. In a sample of 88 children, ages 9-14, of incarcerated addict mothers (Hanlon et al., 2005), children self-reported characteristics correlated with drug use and criminal activity as adults. The most commonly reported characteristic was difficulty at school. A third of the respondents had failed a grade or spent time in a special education class. Fully half were suspended at some point, for fighting and/or subordination, and 10% had been expelled. Two-thirds of the participants stated that they themselves had been involved in delinquent activity, mainly minor property crimes or minor theft, and 19% had been arrested. Other risk factors included having a mother who did not complete high school (55%) and a lack of a significant father figure at any point in the child’s life (47%). These behavioral problems may be indicative of a decreased likelihood to complete high school and an increased likelihood to turn to delinquency as an adult.

The effects of maternal imprisonment on children’s school outcomes may vary by the child’s age at the time of the mother’s incarceration. Cho (2010) analyzed data on over 8,000 children who attended Chicago Public Schools from 1991 to 2004 to look for a possible correlation between the timing of maternal incarceration and the likelihood of a child dropping out of high school. She found that children were most likely to drop out of school if they were in early adolescence (age 11-14) at the time of maternal incarceration. In particular, boys were 55% more likely to drop out due to their own incarceration if they had been exposed to maternal imprisonment during early adolescence than at any other time. The intergenerational transmission of crime and delinquency was visible, as almost half of the mothers had 11 or fewer years of education, indicating that they too may have dropped out of school, and many of their children dropped out of school due to their own incarceration.

Other research has confirmed the link between maternal incarceration and child incarceration. In a sample of imprisoned mothers and fathers who self-reported on the status of their minor and adult children, Dallaire (2007b) found that adult children of women in prison were 2.5 times more likely to be incarcerated than adult children of male offenders. Maternal incarceration was also correlated with other familial incarceration; when a mother was imprisoned, it was likely that her relatives were also imprisoned, leading to a depletion of available caregivers for children in the family.

This lack of family resources creates legal challenges for imprisoned mothers who want to retain parental rights to their children. Many states have statutory provisions that include parental incarceration as a criterion for termination of parental rights. Dalley (2002) interviewed 49 mothers in prison and found that not only were they ignorant of the legal process that would remove parental rights, they were often left out of the proceedings—intentionally or not—and were unaware of their right to petition to appoint temporary guardianship rather than have their children enter the Division of Family Services system. In addition to being uninformed, a large portion of the women were incapable of understanding the seriousness or enormity of the issues; nearly 80% had been regular drug users during the past five years, and the majority of the women displayed cognitive development delays. Dalley recommended that incarcerated mothers be educated about their parental rights and that prison and child welfare agencies coordinate to work in the child’s best interest while maintaining respect for the mother’s rights.

The increase in the number of incarcerated mothers has led to an influx of children into the foster care system, yet states have relatively few child welfare policies in place for dealing with children of incarcerated parents. Halperin and Harris (2004) argued that mothers in prison who have children in foster care not only have a limited ability to attend hearings about their child’s status, they are generally unaware that the length of their incarceration, if over 15 months, may automatically relinquish their parental rights. In surveying state child welfare agencies, Halperin and Harris found that 92% of the agencies did not have any data on how many foster care children had parents in prison, and only 21% of the agencies record such information upon child intake. Consequently, caseworkers do not work toward a successful reunification of mother and child, and there is an increased likelihood that the mother’s parental rights will be terminated due to her lack of aggressive involvement in the child’s guardianship proceedings.

Because of the limited data available on children in the foster care system with parents in prison, it is difficult to estimate the combined effects of parental incarceration and foster care. According to data collected by Johnson and Waldfogel (2002), 10%-14% of children with incarcerated parents are in foster care, but there is no information on whether these children were placed in foster care prior to or during parental incarceration. The study argues that coordinating policies from the criminal justice system and child welfare agencies would increase the ability of the state to collect data in order to best help parents and children.

Few programs exist to aid mothers reenter family life after incarceration. Arditti and Few (2006) found that upon release from prison, women were in extremely precarious financial situations—92% owed fines to the criminal justice system, averaging $4,718, and most had difficulty finding work because of their criminal record. Compounding this financial strain, mothers were likely to have unstable child care arrangements, making it harder to find employment. Yet where community services were unable to help, women relied on family and friends for emotional and financial support. These support networks helped enable mothers to return to work and to reestablish family relationships.

The presence of support networks is important during incarceration, as well. In their interviews with caregivers of children visiting parents in jail, Arditti, Lambert-Shute, and Joeste (2003) saw some of the challenges created by parental incarceration for the inmate’s family. A quarter of the caregivers who worked outside the home prior to incarceration stopped working in order to look after the inmate’s child. As a whole, the caregivers—who were mainly comprised of wives or partners, but who also included female relatives—had been economically disadvantaged prior to inmate incarceration, and fell well below the poverty line afterwards. The expenses related to imprisonment, together with the lack of income or child support from the inmate and an increase in work-family conflict resulting in loss of employment, led many caregivers to seek public assistance; two-thirds indicated they were somewhat or much worse off financially since inmate incarceration. These caregivers widely reported that they felt social isolation due to the stigma of having a family member in jail, and worried about the impact the situation would have on the children.

The social stigma of having a relative in jail may actually lead to increased caregiver stress, which translates to children as rejection from the caregiver. Mackintosh, Myers, and Kennon (2006) surveyed children of incarcerated mothers and their caregivers to determine the relation between caregiver stress and a child’s perception of feelings of warmth and acceptance from the caregiver. Although the caregivers tended to be single, unemployed, and poor, to suffer health-wise after taking children in, and to experience parenting stress, older children were less likely than younger children to feel rejected by their caregivers. Children who had fewer life stressors were more likely to feel accepted by their caregivers and to have fewer externalizing behaviors. In circumstances where the caregiver took children in only after another family member was no longer able to care for the children, caregiver stress levels were higher and perceived warmth and acceptance rates were lower. This underscores the importance of having stable support networks who can help provide child care when mothers are incarcerated. Continuity of care has been shown to reduce the risks a child experiences during maternal incarceration.

However, most children who have mothers in prison are already at high risks for cognitive and developmental delays. Poehlmann (2005) interviewed 60 children, their incarcerated mothers, and their caregivers to examine the relationship between a child’s risk status, intellectual outcomes, and home environment. The study tallied risk factors for the child, mother, and caregiver, assessed the home environment, and administered cognitive tests to the child. Poehlmann found that maternal and caregiver risks were highly correlated—caregivers, usually inmate’s mothers, were likely to share risk factors with inmates, such as socioeconomic status, education status, and drug and alcohol use. Caregivers who had multiple risk factors were less able to provide safe, responsive home environments for the children; in combination with maternal risk factors, this correlated with children’s poor performance on the cognitive assessments. 32% of the children had sub-average test scores, confirming that their intellectual outcomes were compromised, consistent with the high risk status of child, mother, and caregiver combined. Thus, in addition to the negative behavioral outcomes associated with maternal incarceration, children of female inmates may already be at an intellectual disadvantage which is exacerbated by the conditions brought about by imprisonment.

The existing literature on the effects of parental incarceration touches on a variety of issues. Perhaps the biggest challenge to performing effective and useful research on the subject of parental incarceration is the lack of official data regarding children of inmates. Though it is clear that the number of children in the foster care system who have incarcerated parents is increasing, little more is known about this group of children. Child welfare agencies should implement policies to track these children and, where appropriate, to work toward successful reunification of child and parent. The available information strongly suggests that maternal incarceration has highly negative outcomes for children, especially early adolescents. A particular effort should be made to design programs that target offenders who are mothers in an attempt to teach them proper parenting skills and to curb recidivism.

The nature of sociological research itself may have contributed to the small number of studies on maternal incarceration. Quantitative studies must rely on existing large bodies of data, and to this point in time, much analysis has already been done on these data banks. Further research of this nature will be a major undertaking, requiring large-scale coordination with the criminal justice system, schools, and child welfare agencies. Qualitative studies, on the other hand, are not only time-consuming but typically have a small sample size, limiting the extent to which they can be generalized to the larger population. If further qualitative research is to be done, it should seek to discover the particular parental rights challenges faced by imprisoned mothers, the legal status of and proper advocacy for children whose parents are both incarcerated, and effective methods of preventing the negative outcomes associated with parental incarceration.

With the rapidly increasing rate of imprisonment, there is a significant need to be aware of the societal effects of the prison boom. Higher risks of academic failure, aggressive behavior, and delinquency appear to exist for children of incarcerated parents, and it is important to understand the full implications of these risks—not only for the children who are at risk, but for society as a whole.


One thought on “Effects of parental incarceration on child outcomes

  1. mika says:


    Arditti, J. A., & Few, A. L. (2006). Mothers’ reentry into family life following incarceration. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 17(1), 103-123. doi:10.1177/0887403405282450

    Arditti, J. A., Lambert-Shute, J., & Joest, K. (2003). Saturday morning at the jail: Implications of incarceration for families and children. Family Relations, 52(3), 195-204. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3700270

    Cho, R. M. (2010). Maternal incarceration and children’s adolescent outcomes: Timing and dosage. The Social Service Review, 84(2), 257-282. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/653456

    Dallaire, D. H. (2007a). Children with incarcerated mothers: Developmental outcomes, special challenges and recommendations. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 28(7), 15-24. doi:10.1016/j.appdev.2006.10.003

    Dallaire, D. H. (2007b). Incarcerated mothers and fathers: A comparison of risks for children and families. Family Relations, 56(5), 440-453.

    Dalley, L. P. (2002). Policy implications relating to inmate mothers and their children: Will the past be prologue? The Prison Journal, 82(2), 234-268. doi:10.1177/003288550208200205

    Geller, A., Garfinkel, I., Cooper, C. E., & Mincy, R. B. (2009). Parental incarceration and child well-being: Implications for urban families. Social Science Quarterly, 90(5), 1186-1202.

    Halperin, R., & Harris, J. L. (2004). Parental rights of incarcerated mothers with children in foster care: A policy vacuum. Feminist Studies, 30(2), 339-352. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20458967

    Hanlon, T. E., Blatchley, R. J., Bennett-Sears, T., O’Grady, K. E., Rose, M., & Callaman, J. M. (2005). Vulnerability of children of incarcerated addict mothers: Implications for preventive intervention. Children and Youth Services Review, 27, 67-84. doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2004.07.004

    Johnson, E. I., & Waldfogel, J. (2002). Parental incarceration: Recent trends and implications for child welfare. The Social Service Review, 76(3), 460-479. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/341184

    Mackintosh, V. H., Myers, B. J., & Kennon, S. S. (2006). Children of incarcerated mothers and their caregivers: Factors affecting the quality of their relationship. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 15(5), 581-596. doi:10.1007/s10826-006-9030-4

    Poehlmann, J. (2005). Children’s family environments and intellectual outcomes during maternal incarceration. Journal of Marriage and Family, 67(5), 1275-1285. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3600312 .

    Wilbur, M. B., Marani, J. E., Appugliese, D., Woods, R., Siegel, J. A., Cabral, H. J., & Frank, D. A. (2007). Socioemotional effects of fathers’ incarceration on low-income, urban, school-aged children. Pediatrics, 120(3), e678-e685. doi:10.1542/peds.2006-2166

    Wildeman, C. (2009). Parental imprisonment, the prison boom, and the concentration of childhood disadvantage. Demography, 46(2), 265-280.

    Wildeman, C., & Western, B. (2010). Incarceration in fragile families. The Future of Children, 20(2), 157-177. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20773699

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