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Parental Incarceration is More Damaging to Children

A study published in the September 2014 issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior found much higher rates of significant health and behavioral problems among children of incarcerated parents as opposed to children with similar demographic, socioeconomic and familial characteristics. The research, conducted by Prof. Kristin Turney at the University of California, Irvine, and presented at the 109th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, suggested that the incarceration of a parent may be more harmful to a child’s health than divorce or even a parent’s death.

The study used data from the 2011-2012 National Survey of Children’s Health, a population-based and representative sample of children from birth to age 17. Susan Brown, a professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University, said the report gave “compelling evidence as to [the effect of a] stressful life event. A lot of research has been done on parental incarceration and children’s health.” She added, “I think that it raises a number of important issues when we think about how children are faring and what the collateral consequences are of mass incarceration.”

Education Week reported that more than 2.7 million children in the U.S. have at least one parent in federal or state prison, and one-third reach the age of 18 while a parent is behind bars, according to the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey.

Turney, an assistant professor of sociology, stated, “These kids are saddled with disadvantages. They’re not only dealing with parental incarceration but also mental health issues. It might make finding a job more difficult or they may be forced to grow up faster than their peers.”

Education Week also reported on a presentation delivered in 2013 by Philip M. Gentry, a clinical professor of professional responsibility at Columbia Law School, who drew a correlation between the distance between incarcerated parents and their children living at home. “More than 40 percent of those in federal prison are kept at least 500 miles from home, and 61 percent of those in state prison are incarcerated 100 or more miles away,” he found. Such distances make it difficult for prisoners to have visits with their children.

Although the Family League of Baltimore, with support from the Maryland Governor’s Office of Children, held a conference in the summer of 2016 on helping families deal with incarceration, not everyone is on board. Glen Elliot, chief psychiatrist at the Children’s Health Council, disagreed with the conclusions of Turney’s study, noting that some of the problems cited in her research may be genetically inherited. “You can’t assume that these are causal relationships,” he said. “There may be more mediating factors.”

Regardless, the impact of parental incarceration on children continues to be a cause for concern. In April 2016, the Annie E. Casey Foundation published a report titled “A Shared Sentence: The devastating toll of parental incarceration on kids, families and communities.”

The report noted that “For children and families, incarceration is not a one-time event but a daily reality that lasts well beyond a jail sentence or prison term.” It concluded, “Without a doubt, people who break the law should face the consequences. Still, parents who are incarcerated do not live in isolation: They are fathers, mothers, partners, caregivers, breadwinners and community members, and their kids inevitably end up sharing their sentences.”

Sources: Journal of Health and Social Behavior, www.npr.org, www.usatoday.com, www.prb.org

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