Abstract: Does Witnessing a Parent's Arrest Relate to Emotional or Developmental Concerns in Young Children with Jailed Parents (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Does Witnessing a Parent's Arrest Relate to Emotional or Developmental Concerns in Young Children with Jailed Parents

Wednesday, January 20, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Julie Poehlmann-Tynan, PhD, Dorothy A. O'Brien Professor of Human Ecology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
Luke Muentner, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
Kaitlyn Pritzl, Researcher, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Laurel Davis, Researcher, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities
Rebecca Shlafer, Assistant Professor, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities
Background and Purpose: Most U.S. incarceration occurs in jails, with 10.7 million jail admissions in 2018. Because 65% of jailed individuals are parents, millions of children are affected each year. In this investigation, we examine young children’s development and emotional reactions to witnessing their jailed parent’s arrest. We hypothesize that among children with jailed parents, children who witness their parent’s arrest will be at higher risk for developmental delays and negative emotional reactions to parent-child separation, controlling for children’s age and general emotional problems.

Methods: Children were part of an intervention study examining visiting. Jailed parents were eligible if they were 18 or older, could read English, and had: a 3-8 year-old child living with kin, retained parental legal rights, not committed a crime against the child, cared for the child before incarceration, and anticipated the child visiting. Of 284 jailed parents recruited across four jails in two states, 86 (30%) diverse child-caregiver-parent triads enrolled (15 jailed mothers and 71 jailed fathers). One child per family participated. Although the study tested an intervention, the measures used were collected prior to randomization; thus, groups were combined.

Jailed parents and caregivers reported on whether the child witnessed the parent’s arrest (yes/no) and how distressed the child appeared at the time of the parent’s arrest (0 to 5 scale). Children’s caregivers provided background information and completed the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) about children’s behavior and emotional problems during the prior 6 months. Caregivers reported about children’s emotional reactions to separation from the jailed parent, indicating yes/no to a list of 12 emotions (which were summed). Researchers conducted the PEDS: Developmental Milestones Assessment (PEDS-DM) with children while waiting to visit in jail.

To test the primary hypothesis, we conducted four binary logistic regressions for the PEDS-DM subscales (Social, Language, Academic, Motor) and two hierarchical multiple linear regression analyses with (1) children’s distress about witnessing the arrest and (2) children’s negative emotional reactions to parent-child separation as the outcome variables. The predictors were witnessing the parent’s arrest, SDQ emotional problems, and children’s age. Covariates included children’s age at separation, children’s gender, and parent gender.

Results: Many children exhibited developmental delays (22% Social, 40% Language, 31% Academic, 22% Motor) and clinically significant emotional problems (twice the rate of the norming sample); 43% of children witnessed their parent’s arrest. Children who witnessed their parent’s arrest were more distressed about the parent’s arrest, and they were more likely to exhibit subsequent academic delays. However, negative emotional reactions to parental separation were associated with general emotional problems rather than witnessing the arrest. Girls and children who had more negative reactions to parent-child separation were more likely to exhibit subsequent language delays, even controlling for prior emotional problems. Children who were younger when separated from their incarcerated parents were more likely to show delays in social and motor skills.

Conclusions and Implications: The findings have implications for family-focused and developmental referrals and interventions following parental incarceration in jail and for policies regarding safeguarding children during parental arrest.