About 5 million children in the U.S. experience parental incarceration before they turn 18 (National Survey of Children’s Health). Evidence shows that parental incarceration is linked to children’s social isolation, economic insecurity, and unmet health needs, putting them in vulnerable situations. These adverse social circumstances, in turn, could affect children’s risky behaviors, such as sexual risk taking and substance use, which often have negative impacts on their emotional, behavioral and health outcomes. However, there is a scarcity of research that examines the adverse impact of parental involvement in the criminal justice system on their children’s risk-taking behaviors and associated outcomes. Particularly, given the prevalence of the current opioid crisis among young adults and racial disparities in the criminal justice system, it is crucial to identify whether parental incarceration in one’s childhood has an influence on substance use in their young adulthood and the mechanisms for the association. Using a nationally representative sample, this study examines the association between parental incarceration and substance use in their children’s young adulthood and potential factors that mediate the association.
This study used Wave III (2002) and IV (2008) of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health. The public-use sample of 4,881 participants who were 18-26 years of age was used for the analysis. We employed multivariable logistic regression to examine the association between parental incarceration and the overall substance use and various types of substance use (i.e., smoking, prescription opioid, illegal drugs) of young adult children, controlling for sociodemographic information, neighborhood contexts, history of childhood abuse, and mental health issues. We also examined the impacts of maternal incarceration and paternal incarceration on substance use separately, given the prior literature that found differential results of maternal and parental incarceration on outcomes. Finally, we will utilize a structural equation modeling to further examine mediating factors for the relationship between maternal incarceration and substance use among their young adult children, including childhood relocation, public program participation, foster care, and criminal justice involvement.
Results show that approximately 18.5% of the sample experienced parental incarceration at some point before they turned age 18. The sample also reported regularly smoking (40.0%), prescription opioid use (19.2%) and illegal drug use (15.8%) in early adulthood. The results of the multivariate analysis indicate that children of incarcerated parents are more likely to use substance overall in their early adulthood. Maternal incarceration has stronger impact on substance use among adult offspring than paternal incarceration.
This study expands limited evidence on substance use among children of incarcerated parents. Findings of our study underscore the importance of safety-net and social services for children of incarcerated parents and highlight the need to understand social determinants of substance misuse for effective prevention efforts in and before early adulthood. Policymakers should consider the impact of incarcerating parents, and particularly mothers, on future generations’ risk-taking behaviors. Knowledge of paternal incarceration can help social service providers identify young adults at risk of substance abuse in order to deliver more targeted support.