Children face lifelong struggles if their parents are incarcerated, study details



New research has found that a parent’s incarceration may have long-term effects on their children’s health and development.

A recent study by the Center for Child and Family Policy found that children whose parents are incarcerated are more likely to develop psychiatric disorders, have lower incomes and become incarcerated themselves as adults. The study concluded that parental incarceration contributes to a cycle of disadvantage that extends from one generation to the next.

“The effects of incarceration are not limited to the individuals who face incarceration,” said Elizabeth Gifford, assistant research professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy and lead author of the study.

The children of incarcerated parents face many obstacles in their development, including being three times more likely than other children to be charged with a felony, five times more likely to drop out of high school and five times more likely to become a teenage parent. They are also six times more likely to develop a substance use disorder as adults.

In addition, children who experience parental incarceration are at higher risk of being diagnosed with anxiety, depression and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

The study used data from the Great Smoky Mountains Study, which followed children from the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina from 1993 to 2015. The children and their parents were interviewed up to eight times throughout their childhood, with follow-up assessments conducted as the children became adults.

Researchers found that, by the age of 16, 23.9% of participating children had an incarcerated parental figure. Of these, almost 90% of cases included an incarcerated father. Additionally, the results revealed parental incarceration rates were much higher among African Americans and American Indian/Native Americans families, which increases the number of minority children facing the adverse effects of the incarceration system.

Despite close to half of Americans having a close family member who has experienced incarceration, children in this study faced stigmatization in school due to parental incarceration. Peer rejection is associated with greater difficulty transitioning into adulthood—while younger children are more likely to demonstrate aggressive and antisocial behaviors, the problems worsen with maturity.

Gifford stressed the importance of raising awareness of the struggles associated with parental incarceration in order to reduce stigma and “lessen the burden that children face.” 

In order to mitigate the strain that incarceration places on children and their parents, some prisons and jails have begun to include evidence-based training programs for inmates in order to strengthen parenting skills upon release. Gifford suggests that it would also be helpful to increase visitation programs and make visiting spaces more “conducive to visiting so that children and parents can be connected.” 

“Our findings point to the potentially high societal costs of incarcerating children’s caregivers — potentially for generations to come,” Gifford said in the study’s news release. “From a public health perspective, preventing parental incarceration could improve the well-being of children and young adults, as could aiding children and families once a parent figure has been incarcerated.”

Paige Carlisle profile
Paige Carlisle

Paige Carlisle is a Trinity senior and a staff reporter for The Chronicle.


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