The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

Parental Incarceration, Family Support and the Mental Well-Being of Delinquent Youth

Saturday, January 19, 2013
Grande Ballroom A, B, and C (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Heath Johnson, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Background & Purpose:  This study examines the relationships between parental incarceration, family characteristics and mental health indicators of depression & aggression in a sample of youth in residential treatment facilities.  This study is the first to explore the effects of parental incarceration on a delinquent sample, with the added advantage of utilizing youth self-reports rather than a reliance on caregiver accounts of mental well-being.  This study adds to the knowledge-base by showing that among the most at-risk youth, parental incarceration is a significant predictor of diminished mental health.  We hypothesize that a history of parental incarceration will predict more mental health symptoms of 1) depression/anxiety and 2) anger/irritability.

Methods:  A sample (N = 254) of delinquent youth in residential treatment facilities provided data for the analyses, through interviews using Computer Assisted Survey Techniques.   Multivariate tests predicted Depression and Anger by parental incarceration, family factors (family stress & family support), and basic demographics (sex, race, age).  A multiple regression model is used to control for demographic factors, and to test potential mediation effects of family factors, in predicting both mental health indicators.   Measures for depression and anger are derived from Confirmatory Factor Analyses (CFA) of MAYSI-2 subscales.  Family factors are derived from CFA’s from the Child Trauma Questionnaire.

ResultsParental incarceration was bivariately correlated with both depression and aggression.  Both mental health indicators were highly correlated with each other.  Counter to one hypothesis, after controlling for demographic factors, parental incarceration was no longer a predictor of aggression.  Incarceration remained significantly predictive of depression, after controlling for both demographic and family factors.  Our model predicted 25% of the variance in depression indicators, with family stress serving as a partial mediator.  Our model predicted 11% of the variance in aggression, though parental incarceration did not remain a predictor in the aggression model after controlling for demographics.  Family stress was associated with both depression and anger measures.

Conclusion and Implications:  In line with previous research, this study finds that parental incarceration is a stressor in the lives of children.  The disproportionate number of youth with histories of parental incarceration in this delinquent sample suggests that these youth are adversely effected by their parents’ criminal justice involvement.  Depression and Anxiety are significantly predicted by parental incarceration even when family disruptions and family stress are controlled.  This effect was not found with regard to Anger, for reasons we explore.  Mental health problems for youth with imprisoned parents are shown to continue over the course of a lifetime and, if not addressed, appear to increase the likelihood of youth involvement in future delinquency and crime.  Residential treatment facilities provide mental health services to these youth, though social service provisions could be triggered at the time of parental incarceration, thereby addressing mental health problems prior to involvement in delinquency.