Abstract: Foster Children of Incarcerated Parents: A Longitudinal Nationwide Analysis (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Foster Children of Incarcerated Parents: A Longitudinal Nationwide Analysis

Wednesday, January 20, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Maria Morrison, MSW, Doctoral student, Washington University in Saint Louis, St. Louis, MO
Brett Drake, MSW, PhD, Professor, Washington University in Saint Louis, MO

In the United States, an estimated 1 in 28 children has an incarcerated parent. Parental incarceration may lead to entry into the foster care system. We know little about the histories and future trajectories of these children. To address this gap, we used a large multi-year, multi-state administrative dataset to examine a small but substantial (7%) subset of foster children who entered care due to parental incarceration. This study aims to compare the pre- and post-foster care trajectories of this group of children with other foster children.


Data from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) were combined with Child Protective Services (CPS) report data from the Child File database of the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS), creating a longitudinal dataset spanning the 2005-2017 fiscal years. Children with a first-ever foster care entry in FY 2011, residing in the 37 states with linkable data, were included in the study (N=142,320). Combining AFCARS and Child File data longitudinally allowed us to explore their report histories prior to their first foster care episode as well as subsequent CPS reports and foster care entries.


We found that children in foster care for reasons of parental incarceration were often similar to children entering foster care for other reasons. Areas of similarity included number of CPS reports prior to entry into foster care, number of subsequent reports, duration of time in foster care and number of children with of subsequent foster care spells.

Some differences were found. Children of incarcerated parents were younger (median age of 4 vs. 6 years old). Among children of incarcerated parents, 46% were White and 15% were Black. For those in care for other reasons, there were fewer Whites (42%) and a larger proportion were Black (20%). This is in contrast to the demographic features of the adult incarcerated population which is disproportionately Black.

Additionally, co-occurring reasons for entry into foster care were significantly different. For example, parental use of alcohol was twice as common (12% v. 6%) among those children with incarcerated parents. Parental drug use was also far more common (42% v. 26%). This is consistent with findings on rates of substance use disorders among incarcerated adults.

Finally, we used the entire AFCARS database to determine if there were changes over time in the proportion of children entering foster care for reasons of parental incarceration. The proportion of children entering foster care for parental incarceration between 2006 and 2008 was about 6%. This proportion rose through 2012, nearing 8%, and has remained near 8% since.

Conclusions and Implications:

Foster children who enter care following parental incarceration differ in some ways from other children entering foster care and are an increasing proportion of children entering care. Changes in the current societal preference for incarceration over treatment for drug and alcohol abuse could pay dividends in decreasing the number of children entering the foster care system.