Understanding the Mechanism Behind Maternal Imprisonment and Adolescent School Dropout

By Cho, Rosa M. | Family Relations, July 2011 | Go to article overview

Understanding the Mechanism Behind Maternal Imprisonment and Adolescent School Dropout


Cho, Rosa M., Family Relations


This study empirically tested 3 mechanisms commonly suggested to disadvantage youths whose mothers are incarcerated in prison. An event history analysis of school dropout was conducted on a sample of 6,008 adolescents in a large city created by merging several Illinois state administrative data. Findings revealed that adolescents are indeed at greater risk of school dropout during the year(s) their mothers are incarcerated. Children who are removed from maternal guardianship and placed under the guardianship of a relative adult are observed to have higher odds of school dropout than children who remain under maternal guardianship after the mother's imprisonment. Lastly, attending a school in which maternal imprisonment is fairly common is not found to place adolescents at greater risk of school dropout after controlling for school quality.

Key Words: adolescent, maternal imprisonment, school dropout.

(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

Over the past several decades, the number of female inmates in state or federal prisons has increased rapidly, presenting new challenges to the structure and functioning of families, as many female inmates are the primary caregivers for their children (Parke & Clarke-Stewart, 2001). By midyear 2009, approximately 1 15,000 women were estimated to be held in state or federal prison (West, 2010). As about 62 and 56% of all female inmates in state and federal prisons, respectively, are reported to have children below the age of 1 8 and because imprisoned women are reported to have about 2.38 children on average, about 1 65,000 children are estimated to have a mother imprisoned on a given day (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008; Greenfeld & Snell, 1999). Children with an imprisoned mother are considered one of the most vulnerable at-risk populations; research has identified these children to be commonly associated with several risk factors such as the experience of multiple stressful and traumatic events and many home and school displacements (Dallaire, 2007a).

With rising female imprisonment rates, a handful of research studies have attempted to explain how children are affected by having a mother incarcerated in prison. Despite these attempts, however, the lack of appropriate data has hindered many from moving beyond theoretical predictions and providing empirical evidence supporting or disproving certain hypotheses about the effect of maternal imprisonment. The purpose of this paper was to examine the implications of three commonly suggested mechanisms that prior research has identified as avenues through which maternal imprisonment disadvantages children.

The first mechanism has to do with the incapacitation effects of imprisonment that leads to mother-child separation. Currently, among female inmates in prison with minor children, about 61% are reported to have lived with their children prior to incarceration (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008). National estimates indicate that the majority of imprisoned mothers who were living with their children prior to incarceration were also providing most of their daily care (Glaze & Maruschak). Approximately 77% of female inmates in state and federal prisons who were living with their children prior to incarceration reported having provided most of the daily care for their minor children. This is one of the main differences between maternal and paternal incarceration. Fathers are generally less likely to have lived with their minor children prior to incarceration (4%), and even among those who lived with their children they are significantly less likely to have provided most of their daily care (26%). Second, children may be at risk of adverse outcomes from being legally removed from the imprisoned mother to be placed under the guardianship of a nonparent caregiver or to be placed in foster care for extended time periods (Glaze & Maruschak; Hayward & DePanfilis, 2007). According to national statistics, about 45% of children live with their grandparents during maternal imprisonment, whereas only 37% are living with the other parent (Glaze & Maruschak). …

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