Stepping in and Stepping Away:  Variation in How Children Navigate Responsibilities Stemming from Paternal Incarceration

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Despite reasons to believe paternal incarceration has heterogeneous consequences for children, little research explores the processes underlying variation in children’s responses to this adverse event. We use data from the Jail and Family Life Study, an in-depth interview study of incarcerated fathers and their family members (including their children), to understand the heterogeneous processes linking paternal incarceration to children’s wellbeing. Children commonly reported that their father’s incarceration restructured their lives by altering their emotional and instrumental responsibilities. Within each of these domains, though, children expressed considerable variation in their responses, with some children seamlessly stepping into new responsibilities stemming from paternal incarceration and other children, especially older children who had witnessed their fathers’ frequent entanglements with the criminal legal system, consciously stepping away from these responsibilities. These findings illustrate the range of responses that children have to paternal incarceration, shedding light on processes that have not been observed in survey research. 

Turney, Kristin, Amy Gong Liu, and Estéfani Marín. In press. “Stepping in and Stepping Away: Variation in How Children Navigate Responsibilities Stemming from Paternal Incarceration.” RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences.