Parental incarceration can place a great deal of stress and uncertainty on the children left behind, and can have a wide array of negative consequences for the child, including changes in family structure, family financial strain, and academic difficulties. Parental incarceration also carries social stigma, and although these children are not responsible for the choices that their parents make, many bear the weight from others known and unknown to them that they will follow in their parent’s footsteps. This constellation of issues put children with incarcerated parents at heightened risk for difficulty during adulthood. Here, within a sample of incarcerated mothers and fathers, we examine the frequencies of concurrent outcomes for children with incarcerated parents as well as parental perceptions of their future outlook.
Participants were 370 incarcerated parents housed in state department of corrections (DOC) facilities in Oregon. Parents were 32 years old, on average, and 43% were persons of color. Parents had between 1 and 16 children, who were an average of 8 years of age. One child per parent (i.e., the target child, or TC) was randomly selected for participation. Most TCs (91%) were the biological child of their incarcerated parent. Descriptive statistics were calculated, including t-tests comparing mothers and fathers.
Over 34% of parents reported living with the TC full time, and only 14% of parents reported that they had had no contact with the TC in the month prior to their incarceration. TCs had experienced between 1 and 15 changes in primary caregivers during their lifetimes (M = 5), with changes similar for the TCs of mothers and fathers. Half of parents reported that they were working at the time of their arrest. Average monthly income was $2,235, with fathers more likely to be working and to be earning more money than mothers. There was no difference between mothers and fathers in terms of total family income (M = $6,080). Despite many children experiencing these types of difficult changes, children were reported by parents as doing very well in school. However, 41% of parents said that their incarceration did affect the TCs education in some way. In terms of their child’s future, 51% of mothers and fathers predicted that their child would do very well, and 99% predicted that their child would complete high school, and 33% predicted that their child would graduate from a 4-year college or university. Half of parents reported that it was “very unlikely” that the TC would be in trouble with the police as a teen, and 70% reported that it was “very unlikely” that the TC would be incarcerated during their adult years.
Conclusions and Implications
Children of incarcerated parents were found to have experienced an average of 4 changes in primary caregivers, and significant family financial loss when their parent was incarcerated. However, children were not perceived as having difficulties in school, and most parents predicted their child would do well in adulthood. Implications for practice, policy and research will be discussed.