Abstract: Reunited at Reentry: Children's Well-Being after Fathers Are Released from Prison (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Reunited at Reentry: Children's Well-Being after Fathers Are Released from Prison

Wednesday, January 20, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Luke Muentner, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Pajarita Charles, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
Background and Purpose: Parental incarceration is an adverse childhood experience with a host of deleterious outcomes for children. Currently, over five million youth have experienced the incarceration of a parent, disproportionately affecting low-income families of color. However, nearly all incarcerated individuals are eventually released meaning that millions of children must navigate the complexity that accompanies parental reentry into community and family life. That said, limited research considers children’s lives and well-being after parental incarceration and it is not well understood whether poor outcomes persist, are relieved, or are exacerbated when a parent comes home. This study fills this gap by examining children’s well-being through the perspective of returning fathers, co-parenting mothers, and relatives, with attention to children’s needs, challenges, and strengths.

Methods: Data comes from a larger qualitative study of semi-structured interviews with 19 fathers released from prison in the previous 12-months, 9 mothers co-parenting with fathers in reentry, and 10 relatives of recently released fathers. All participants discussed experiences of fathers’ release from prison and its consequences for their children and family life. Participants lived in a large Midwestern city, were on average 34 years old, and were majority Black (97%), unemployed (58%), and never married (71%). Fathers had an average of 3 children, had last been incarcerated for approximately 2 years, and had been released for 7.5 months on average.

Thematic analysis, using both a deductive and inductive approach to coding, was conducted in Atlas.ti. We applied the coding structure across all interviews to holistically assess data with a broad family lens and provide a comprehensive, critical analysis among those involved in children's lives. Meaningful patterns were identified by aggregating and splitting codes, grouping into subthemes, and linking to broader themes.

Results: Data analysis reveals that the impact of parental incarceration for children is unrelenting. Just as separation due to the incarceration is a catalyst for disruption, participants described reentry as a unique phenomenon requiring children to re-adjust. Those interviewed discussed the process children undergo as they negotiate expectations with their recently released fathers. Their needs included recommitment to emotional and relational bonds and provision of material and financial support. These hopes came in the face of cascading consequences, or a continuum of challenges that children faced even with their father back in the community, such as further behavioral maladjustments or increased emotional distress. As they made sense of their changed world, participants discussed children’s strength and resilience in their ability to overcome stress and adversity. This emphasizes that, with adequate support, children have the ability to thrive with their previously incarcerated parent back home or in their lives.

Conclusions and Implications: These findings suggest that reentry is a uniquely impactful justice-experience that affects children’s overall well-being and functioning. When parents come home, children set expectations of post-release life, face ongoing challenges to their adjustment, and demonstrate resilience in their ability to cope. These findings have implications for family-focused interventions that support the entire family post-release and call for future reentry research that considers child-level outcomes.