Parental Incarceration and Children’s Wellbeing

Full Article

A half century ago, relatively few US children experienced the incarceration of a parent. In the decades since, incarceration rates rose rapidly (before leveling off more recently), and today
a historically unprecedented number of children are exposed to parental incarceration. In this article, Kristin Turney and Rebecca Goodsell walk us through the evidence that parental incarceration impairs children’s wellbeing throughout the life course. Given the fact that already vulnerable children are also the most likely to experience having a parent behind bars, they write, these trends increase inequality among children.

After documenting the scope of parental incarceration, Turney and Goodsell review mechanisms that may link parental incarceration to children’s wellbeing, such as the parent’s physical absence, the trauma associated with the criminal justice process, and the stigma of having a parent in jail or prison. They also review research into how parental incarceration affects four aspects of children’s wellbeing: behavior, education, health, and hardship and deprivation. In each of these areas, parental incarceration has detrimental consequences for children.

The authors then turn to programs designed to improve the wellbeing of children of incarcerated parents. Interestingly, they note, despite the fact that fathers’ rather than mothers’ incarceration appears to have worse consequences for children, many such programs focus on incarcerated mothers—although some aim to treat both parents, or the family as a whole. Yet, they find, few such interventions have been conclusively shown to improve children’s wellbeing during and after parental incarceration. Turney and Goodsell suggest three other types of interventions that might help reduce disparities among children of incarcerated parents: programs that strengthen parents’ relationships, increase families’ economic wellbeing, and treat parents’ substance abuse.

Turney, Kristin, and Rebecca Goodsell. 2018. “Parental Incarceration and Children’s Wellbeing.” Future of Children 28:147–164.