Over the past two decades, the number of imprisoned adults in the U.S. has quadrupled. Mirroring this trend is the rapidly increasing population of children with incarcerated parents, whose numbers are now greater than at any other time in our country's history (Travis & Waul, 2003). The initial findings of research on the effects of parental incarceration on children are disturbing, indicating a vulnerable group of children at high risk for mental health difficulties, delinquency, and future criminal behavior (Johnston, 1995; Murray, 2005). Yet despite the children's growing numbers and susceptibility, the research around these children remains limited.
The main objectives of this study were to: a) explore differences (in the areas of social advantage, parent health, and parenting) of families with an incarcerated parent and those without, and b) test models that postulate that the effects of parental incarceration in childhood on later adolescent externalizing behaviors are mediated by social advantage, parents' health, and parenting skills.
The study involved a secondary analysis of longitudinal data from the Linking Interests of Families and Teachers (LIFT) project, an ongoing research project of the Oregon Social Learning Center (Eddy, Reid, Stoolmiller, & Fetrow, 2003). A total of 671 children and their parents were recruited from high risk neighborhoods to participate in the original investigation.
Multiple instruments and sources were used to measure many of the constructs to reduce single method and reporting biases. Information on parental incarceration was gathered from official correction records and the LIFT investigation. Latent constructs were developed for social advantage (income, SES, amount worked), effective parenting (monitoring, praise, parent/child relationship, involvement, consistent and appropriate discipline), and parent health (physical and mental health) and child externalizing.
Differences between families with an incarcerated parent and those without were analyzed through chi-square tests of independence and independent t-tests. Structural equation modeling was used to model the complex relationship between parental incarceration, social advantage, parental health, effective parenting and child externalizing behaviors
The study revealed significant differences between families with an incarcerated parent and those without, in areas of income, occupation/educational levels, parental depression, parent health, and parenting strategies. Further, the study found that parental incarceration influenced child externalizing behaviors to the degree that it affected social advantage, parents' health, and parenting. When the children were in 5th, 8th, and 10th grade, the variances the models explained were 60%, 57%, and 20%, respectively.
Conclusion and Implications:
The findings suggest that the negative impact of parental incarceration can be weakened, and resilience of the children bolstered, by improving a family's social advantage, parent health and parenting skills; indicating important target areas for practice and policy when working with this population. The study is an important first step towards understanding how parental incarceration affects adolescent adjustment. Next steps include examining how parental incarceration affects other aspects of adolescent behavior and how the model operates within specific sub-populations of our society.