Abstract: Protective and Adverse Experiences: Young Adult Voices on Childhood Parental Incarceration (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Protective and Adverse Experiences: Young Adult Voices on Childhood Parental Incarceration

Friday, January 17, 2020
Marquis BR Salon 12, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Carrie Smith, DSW, Associate Professor, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY
Morgan Secoy, Graduate Student, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY
Diane Young, PhD, Director, University of Washington, Tacoma, WA
Background and Purpose: Countless parents have been incarcerated as a result of mass incarceration with families of color disproportionally impacted by this phenomenon. Incarceration represents a life altering event for children and families. The voices of those directly impacted by parental incarceration are rare in the literature. This study speaks beyond the statistics by highlighting the voices of those who experienced parental incarceration as children. Participants identify supportive and protective factors and adverse childhood experiences in addition to parental incarceration. Research questions include: (1) What supports or protective factors did participants experience? (2) What adverse childhood events did participants identify? and (3) Did participants identifying the greatest number of adverse childhood experiences also indicate fewer supports?

Methods: Fourteen young adults, ages 18 through 28, shared their retrospective experiences related to parental incarceration and family reentry during childhood. Participants were recruited via emails, listservs, social media, and fliers. Eligibility criteria included parental incarceration for at least three months during the participant’s adolescence and significant involvement by the parent in the participant’s life prior to incarceration. Using an approach informed by phenomenological analysis, individual face-to-face or telephone interviews were conducted using an interview guide consisting of semi-structured and open-ended questions. Interviews were taped and transcribed for analysis. Qualitative analysis involved reviewing transcripts and capturing adverse childhood experiences through keywords and phrases relevant to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse or neglect, substance misuse within the household, mental illness of a household member, domestic violence, and parental separation or divorce. In addition, information about protective factors and supports were identified through an open coding process of participants’ responses to interview questions such as “Who did you turn to for help and support?,” “How did you cope?” and “What has contributed to your successes?” In this way, salient themes relative to protective factors were gleaned from participants’ stories. Brief case examples drawn from participants indicating the most adverse events illustrate the interplay between adverse and supportive experiences.

Results: Young adults identified several protective factors with family members, friends, and school-related support the most common. In addition to parental incarceration, the most frequently identified adverse childhood experiences were substance misuse in the household, parental separation or divorce, and emotional abuse or neglect. Ten out of 14 participants described three or more adverse childhood experiences. Of the two participants who identified the most adverse events, one described several supports and the other minimal support.  

Conclusions and Implications: Participants identified multiple adverse childhood experiences and also indicated the importance of supports throughout periods of parental incarceration. The protective factors they identified improved their lives, helping them cope with the negative effects of parental incarceration. It is important for practitioners assisting children and families experiencing incarceration to help them utilize both informal and formal supports that mitigate the negative impacts of parental incarceration. Organizations most likely to interact with children, such as schools, sport teams, and mentor programs, can play a pivotal role in addressing the needs of these children. The use of empowerment based interventions may be helpful.