Skip to main content

Incarceration in the Household: Impact on Children

Incarceration of Household Members - Implications for adolescent sexual healthAlmost one in 40 children in the United States have an incarcerated parent (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008). Recently, researchers have focused their attention on the long-term effects that incarceration has on a child's development.  Our lab furthers the effort by exploring the impact of familial incarceration from several perspectives:

  • Incarceration of Household Members
  • Mothers in Prison 

Incarceration of Household Members - Implications for children's academic outcomes

Although several scholars point to the likelihood of the negative impact of parental incarceration on a youth’s academic outcomes, this association has yet to be observed on a national level (Murray & Farrington, 2008). Moreover, although extended family members play essential roles in the development and support of youth in their kinship network (Pallock & Lamborn, 2006; Wilson, 1989) little is known about the impact of incarceration of close extended kin. Our first study examined the association between incarceration of any household member and academic outcomes (high school graduation, drop out, grade retention) of youth who participated in National Longitudinal Survey of Youth – 79 Child/Youth Sample. The sample includes a nationally representative sample of 3338 (47.5% male) youth, born between 1973 and 1989. Participants and their caregivers were interviewed and completed various self-report measures biannually between 1983 and 2008. A subsample of 585 youth self reported that a “household member” was incarcerated after their 10th birthday and before their 18th birthday, and provided their age at incarceration of the incarceration (HMI).

Our study has shown that ....

  • HMI youth had significantly higher levels of poverty ((2 = 57.86, p < .001), lower home quality ratings (t = 4.77, p < .001), lower estimates of intelligence (PPVT; t = 4.06, p < .001) and significantly less mothers with high school degrees (( 2 = 17.98, p < .001).  They also had significantly worse academic outcomes when compared with the rest of the sample.
  • Hierarchical logistic regression analyses reveled a significant association between HMI and failure to graduate high school (Nagelkerke R Square = 0.121, Wald = 8.11, p = .004) and dropping out of high school for one month or longer and returning (drop out-return; Nagelkerke R Square = .099, Wald = 25.83, p < .001) , when controlling for above differences.
  • HMI does not significantly account for variance in grade retention.
  • Having a parent incarcerated was significantly associated with higher likelihood of drop out-return.
  • Having a sibling incarcerated was significantly associated with higher likelihood of failure to graduate high school.
  • Having an extended household member (cousin, aunt/uncle, grandparent, non-relative) incarcerated was significantly associated with higher likelihood of both drop out-return and failure to graduate high school

These results underscore the association between negative academic outcomes and household incarceration, and highlight the importance of school awareness and prevention for this high-risk population.

New Perspectives on Risk and Prevention: Academic  Risk and Resiliency of Youth with Incarcerated Parents

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. As a result, about 1 in 43 children in the United States have a parent in prison every year, nearly half of who are between 11 and 18 years old (Maruschak, Glaze, & Mumola, 2011).  Although considerable research has examined risk factors and associated outcomes within this population, there is little research to date on the protective factors that promote healthy adjustment for youth who face parental incarceration.  In order to offer service providers with guidance on informed interventions for this population, we must first identify individual, family, and school characteristics that promote resiliency and healthy adaptation within the context of risk (Masten et al., 1999).   Our study used the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) dataset to (1) confirm the academic risk associated with parental incarceration; and to (2) further investigate potential protective factors on both individual and school levels.   

Our study has shown that... 

  • As is the case for other children, for those with an incarcerated parent, have a strong sense of connectedness to home and school predicted lower truancy levels and high grade point averages. 
  • The incarceration of a mother or father at or before early adolescence was associated with higher rates of truancy, lower cumulative GPAs, and less years of education attained.

The chart above shows the interaction effect of parental incarceration and school connectedness on highest level of education (HLE).  Higher levels of school connectedness predicted that youth who did not experience an incarcerated parent would progress further with higher education goals.  However, this relationship was not evident for children with incarcerated parents.  This suggests that the beneficial effects of school connectedness for children of incarcerated parents do not seem to persist beyond the school years, as is the case for those youth who do not experience parental incarceration. 


Incarceration of Household Members - Implications for adolescent sexual health

Parental incarceration is associated with multiple with negative outcomes including lower academic achievement (Trice & Brewster, 2004), mental illness (Dallaire & Wilson, 2010), stigma (Hagen & Myers, 2003), family disruption (Arditti & Fes, 2006), crime (Hubener & Gustafson, 2007), and other forms of antisocial behavior (Murray & Farrington, 2008). Community incarceration rates are associated with negative sexual health outcomes in adolescents (Thomas & Torrone, 2006). Moreover, some studies (e.g. East, Khoo, &Reyes, 2006) highlight the salient role of parent and sibling relationships on young girls’ sexual behavior.

With such clear influence of close familial relationships on sexual health and apparent negative effects of parental incarceration, the question arises: Will the incarceration of a household member have a negative influence on adolescent sexual health? The current study takes this next step by examining sexual health outcomes of 3,312 girls from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth to learn whether the incarceration of a household member accounts for any variation in predicting teenage pregnancy, contraceptive use, number of sexual partners, and experience of intercourse at younger ages. 

Our study has shown that ....

  • Girls with an incarcerated household member have sex at younger ages (F(1, 2582)= 25.37, p< 0.001, R2= 0.11).
  • Girls with an incarcerated household member are less likely to use contraceptives (X2(1, 11494)= 20.13, p< 0.001, OR= 0.628).
  • Girls with an incarcerated household member have more sexual partners (F(1, 2395)= 6.025, p= 0.014, R2= 0.004).
  • Girls with an incarcerated household member are more likely to become pregnant before age 20 (X2(1, 11494)= 101.19, p< 0.001, OR= 2.685). 

Incarceration and the Family Environment- Sexual Health of Girls with an Incarcerated Parent: The Role of Maternal Communication

Dissertation by Mathilde Logan Whalen (August 7, 2014)

As the United States has the one of the highest rates of teenage births of any industrialized country (Kearney & Levine, 2012), adolescent sexual health continues to be a national priority.  High public cost, as well as associated risk factors for teen mothers and their children indicate the importance of understanding the pathways associated with sexual risk in order to inform the development of related interventions.  Family influences, specifically parent-teen sexual health communication patterns, have received a considerable amount of attention due to the potential benefits of this avenue for intervention.  While the importance of such communication has been emphasized in previous studies, the individual elements of the communication process itself have just begun to receive attention.  Our study used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health to examine the link between mother-child communication processes and adolescent sexual health, specifically focusing on the influence of parental incarceration.

Our study has shown that...

  • Children with an incarcerated parent were more likely to be sexually active and more likely to use contraceptives than girls who did not experience parental incarceration
  • Maternal incarceration has a more negative impact on adolescent sexual activity when compared to paternal incarceration
  • Maternal closeness and greater perceived maternal and peer approval of sexual behavior were also associated with increased likelihood of sexual activity 

Associated Faculty

Connect With Us On: