Academic journal article Family Relations

Incarcerated Mothers and Fathers: A Comparison of Risks for Children and Families

Academic journal article Family Relations

Incarcerated Mothers and Fathers: A Comparison of Risks for Children and Families

Article excerpt


The current study investigates differences between inmate mothers' and fathers' reported rates of incarceration for family members, adult children, predictors of adult children's incarceration, and living situations of minor children. Participants included 6,146 inmates who participated in the U.S. Department of Justice Survey of Inmates in State and Federal Correctional Facilities. Mothers were 2.5 times more likely to report that their adult children were incarcerated than fathers; mothers' regular drug use predicted adult child incarceration. Incarcerated mothers reported greater familial incarceration and their minor children were more likely to be in foster and other nonfamilial care situations than incarcerated fathers. As risk factors accumulated, there were greater rates of adult child incarceration, with a more obvious relationship for mothers.

Key Words: children with incarcerated parents, maternal incarceration, paternal incarceration, risk factors.

Recent estimates from the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated (2007) indicated that parental incarceration affects 1 in every 40 children. Though more mothers and fathers are going to jail and prison every year, relatively little research is directed at understanding the effects of parental incarceration on children. Of particular interest are the distinct familial circumstances associated with maternal compared to paternal incarceration. Though children with incarcerated mothers and fathers may be at higher risk for a number of negative outcomes, like school failure and incarceration (Murray & Farrington, 2005), the mechanism of how risk is transferred is unclear. Furthermore, the ways in which maternal incarceration may place children at greater risk than paternal incarceration has yet to be addressed in a comparative analysis. Are children with incarcerated mothers exposed to more risk factors than children with incarcerated fathers? Are they more likely to be incarcerated as adults? Children and families dealing with maternal incarceration experience numerous stressful life events such as poverty, substance abuse and addiction, mental illness, and abusive familial relationships (Arditti & Few, 2006); the challenge is to better understand the role of maternal incarceration as both a marker of other risks and as a unique risk factor.

The purpose of the current study was to conduct a comparative analysis of differences and similarities in mothers' and fathers' reported rates of familial and adult child incarceration, and minor children's living situations-with the goal of understanding if children with incarcerated mothers are at increased risk for incarceration, and if so, the reasons why. The following research questions were addressed: (a) Do reports of the incidence of familial history of incarceration, and other risk factors, differ for incarcerated mothers compared to incarcerated fathers; (b) Do incarcerated mothers report that their adult children are incarcerated more often than adult children of incarcerated fathers; (c) Are there differential predictors of, and risks for, adult children's incarceration for mothers and fathers; (d) Are more risks associated with higher rates of incarceration; and (e) In what ways do minor children's living situations differ on the basis of maternal or paternal incarceration. The comparative analysis is an effort to understand the circumstances children and families encounter when dealing with maternal incarceration in comparison to paternal incarceration.

Background and Significance

Risk Factors Associated with Parental Incarceration

Theories of risk and resilience provide a useful framework for the consideration of how parental incarceration may link to intergenerational patterns of incarceration as well as the differential implications of maternal and paternal imprisonment (e.g., Masten, 2001; Sameroff, Bartko, Baldwin, Baldwin, & Seifer, 1998). …

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