Abstract: Child Contact during Parental Incarceration: Building Connections to Promote Family Wellbeing in an Era of Decarceration (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

Child Contact during Parental Incarceration: Building Connections to Promote Family Wellbeing in an Era of Decarceration

Thursday, January 13, 2022
Independence BR B, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Pajarita Charles, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
Luke Muentner, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Aaron Gottlieb, Assistant Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL
John Eddy, Professor, University of Texas at Austin
Background and Purpose: Despite evidence that points to in-prison contact between incarcerated parents and their family as reducing recidivism, far less is understood about its role in influencing elements of post-release family functioning including parent-child involvement and family relationships. Questions also exist about whether observed associations may depend upon how in-prison contact is measured and modeled. To address these gaps, this study examined associations between in-prison parent-child contact and post-release parent-child residence, non-residential contact, and parent-caregiver relationship quality. Additionally, it explored multiple measurement strategies of contact to better understand the consequences of collecting and using these measures in various ways. The study contributes to evidence that supports families impacted by incarceration, informs Smart Decarceration strategies, and builds knowledge useful to correctional programming strategies.

Method: Data come from the Parent Child Study, a randomized controlled trial that tested a prison-based parenting program. Analyses include 280 incarcerated parents (n = 167 mothers, n = 113 fathers) interviewed at baseline, post-intervention in prison, and 6-months post-release from prison. Parents were 32 years old on average, one-third had a high school diploma or higher, and 61% were White. Respondents had been imprisoned for approximately 2 years and 47% lived with their child prior to incarceration. The outcomes at 6-months post-release included: 1) residence, 2) non-residential contact (visits, calls, and letters), and 3) parent-caregiver relationship quality. Analyses used two measures of in-prison contact in the last 30-days, including: 1) a continuous, total contact measure not differentiated by visits, calls or letters and 2) three separate but continuous measures of different types of contact (number of visits, calls, and letters). Controls included demographics, child characteristics, criminal justice involvement, baseline measures of the outcomes, and treatment. Analyses used OLS, logistic, and negative binomial regression approaches.

Results: The first set of analyses examining the relationship between in-prison contact and post-release outcomes (residence, non-residential contact, parent-caregiver relationship quality) finds no significant association when type of in-prison contact is not differentiated and is used as a continuous measure. However, when in-prison contact is measured separately, visits and calls are associated with relationship quality, and more frequent in-prison visits significantly increase the odds of residence post-release (OR = 1.37, 95% CI [1.12,1.68]). Among non-residential parents, frequency of visits significantly predicts increases in non-residential visits (β = .28, p < .05). Being a mother also significantly predicts residence and non-residential visits and calls, while positive parent-caregiver relationship quality is significantly associated with residence and non-residential letters.

Conclusion and Implications: This study finds no association between contact as a single continuous predictor and post-release outcomes. However, when included as separate measures, we observe associations between visits during prison and co-residence and parent-caregiver relationships after release. These findings have program and research implications for social workers and criminal justice practitioners given that opportunities for children to see and communicate with their incarcerated parents may matter for residence and involvement after release, and that these findings are appreciably influenced by how contact is measured.