The exponential rise of mass incarceration has contributed to seismic shifts in family structures. Over 1.5 million people are projected to be incarcerated in state or federal prison on a given day, leaving one in five children with a parent behind bars. In 2015, over 5 million children were estimated to have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives. When one or both parents are unavailable, grandparents are often the next kin in line to provide childrearing or financial support. Children who experience parental incarceration are at risk for developing maladaptive adolescent functioning, characterized by delinquent behavior, increased police interactions, and suffering mental health. The study draws from family-centered resiliency theory and social capital theory to ground the following research questions: What is the relationship between paternal incarceration and childhood outcome in terms of positive adolescent functioning, delinquent behavior, and police interactions? Among the families experiencing paternal incarceration, do grandparents moderate the relationship between paternal incarceration and childhood outcomes? Does it make a difference whether the grandparents are present in the household or whether the grandparents are providing financial help?
Data was sourced from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS), a longitudinal dataset following 4,898 children and their households in the U.S. from 1998 (Wave 1) to 2017 (Wave 6). The FFCWS dataset uniquely has a high representation of families experiencing paternal incarceration. I conducted descriptive, multiple linear regression, and multiple logistic regression analyses using STATA. A sensitivity analysis examined whether restricting the sampling frame to families who have experienced paternal incarceration affected the relationship between childhood outcomes and grandparents’ role in the household.
Across Wave 2 to Wave 6 of the FFCWS dataset, 47% of the children had experienced paternal incarceration. In families where the father was incarcerated, 54% of the children reported living with their grandparents and 86% of the children reported receiving financial help from their grandparents. Grandparents providing financial help moderated both the relationship between paternal incarceration and positive adolescent functioning, and between paternal incarceration and child-police interactions, after controlling for covariates. The sensitivity analysis revealed that the presence of grandparents as well as grandparents giving financial help significantly improved the focal child’s positive adolescent functioning score. When grandparents were present in households experiencing paternal incarceration, children scored .12 points higher on positive adolescent functioning than their counterparts who did not have grandparents living with them. Children also scored .18 points higher on positive adolescent functioning when they received financial help from their grandparents compared to their counterparts who did not receive such help.
Experiencing paternal incarceration presents a strain on the family structure that ripples across generations. While grandparents can play a positive role in their grandchildren’s lives, stepping in as caretakers or financial providers may present challenges for the grandparents themselves. Further research and policy changes are needed to illuminate how taking on a provider role affects grandparents at their life stage, as well as to cultivate resources for the grandparents and their grandchildren.