Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Understanding Unique Effects of Parental Incarceration on Children: Challenges, Progress, and Recommendations

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Understanding Unique Effects of Parental Incarceration on Children: Challenges, Progress, and Recommendations

Article excerpt

Growth in U.S. incarceration rates during the 1980s and 1990s prompted a body of research focused on understanding the diverse effects of incarceration on individuals, families, and communities. An area of particular interest has been how the incarceration of a parent may affect child well-being. Despite what appears to be converging evidence that parental incarceration poses a significant threat to child development, this area of inquiry has yet to overcome important methodological and conceptual challenges related to selection bias. It is therefore unclear whether the difficulties that have been observed among children whose parents are incarcerated are due to the incarceration itself or to other adversities that children have experienced. The purpose of this article is to draw attention to these issues, to summarize empirical and conceptual progress in overcoming these challenges, and to suggest directions for future research.

Key Words: child well-being, parental incarceration, selection bias.

Two consecutive decades of steady growth in U.S. incarceration rates have stimulated a body of research focused on understanding the effects of incarceration on individuals, families, and communities. Mirroring the diversity of the disciplines in which it is situated, this research has suggested that incarceration has a number of collateral consequences for the psychological, social, and economic well-being of incarcerated individuals as well as their families and communities (Hagan & Dinovitzer, 1999; Mauer & Chesney-Lind, 2003; Pattillo, Weiman, & Western, 2004; Travis & Waul, 2003). An area of particular interest has been how the incarceration of a parent may affect child well-being. Despite what appears to be converging evidence that parental incarceration poses a significant threat to child development, this area of inquiry has yet to overcome important methodological and conceptual challenges related to selection bias; that is, children whose parents are incarcerated may differ from children whose parents are not incarcerated on a number of dimensions other than parental incarceration status alone, such as family socioeconomic status, parental criminality, parental mental health, parental substance use, and exposure to violence. It is therefore unclear whether the difficulties that have been observed among children whose parents are incarcerated are due to the incarceration itself or to other adversities that children may have experienced.

The purpose of this article is to draw attention to these issues, to summarize progress in overcoming these challenges, and to suggest directions for future research. Although a number of excellent reviews and edited volumes have recently been published on the topic of parental incarceration (e.g., Eddy & Poehlmann, 2010; Harris, Graham, & Carpenter, 2010; Murray & Farrington, 2008a), the current review is unique in its focus on selection bias and the challenges of disentangling the effects of parental incarceration from the effects of parental criminality and other ecological adversities that may influence both the likelihood of parental incarceration and negative child outcomes. Although we appreciate the basic and applied scientific value of examining variables that may moderate the relationship between parental incarceration and child well-being, the focus of our article is on understanding the unique "average" effects of parental incarceration on child well-being.

We begin by providing a brief background on trends in incarceration and associations between parental incarceration and child well-being. Next, we describe the problem of selection bias and discuss the extent to which existing studies have overcome this challenge. We then examine the conceptual frameworks that have been used in this literature and consider the extent to which they can potentially help us understand any unique effects of incarceration on children that have been observed. …

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