A parent’s incarceration may have long-term effects on their children’s health and development

(U.S.) – A recent study by the Center for Child and Family Policy found that when parents are incarcerated their children are more likely to develop psychiatric disorders, have lower incomes and become incarcerated themselves as adults.

The study was conducted using data collected from the Great Smoky Mountains Study, which followed children from the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina from 1993 to 2015. The children and their parents were interviewed up to eight times throughout their childhood. There were also follow-up assessments conducted as the children graduated into adulthood.

Researchers concluded that when parents are in jail it does contribute to a cycle of disadvantages and challenges extended to their children. Children of incarcerated parents are three times more likely than other children to be charged with a felony, five times more likely to drop out of high school and five times more likely to become a teenage parent. The study also found those children are six times more likely to develop a substance use disorder as adults.

Those same children are also at a higher risk of being diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. According to the study, by the age of 16, 23.9% of participating children had an incarcerated parent figure where almost 90% included an incarcerated father.

Researchers also uncovered that children in the study faced stigmatization in school due to their parents being behind bars, noting peer rejection is associated with greater difficulty transitioning into adulthood. Officials explained that younger children were also more likely to demonstrate aggressive and antisocial behaviors, which worsened with maturity.

The study suggests it may be helpful for prisons and jails to include evidence-based training programs for inmates in order to strengthen parenting skills upon release as well as potentially increasing visitation programs and making visiting spaces more conducive to visitation that connects parents and children.

In order to mitigate the strain that incarceration places on children and their parents, some prisons and jails have begun to include evidence-based training programs for inmates in order to strengthen parenting skills upon release. Gifford suggests that it would also be helpful to increase visitation programs and make visiting spaces more conducive to visiting so that children and parents can be connected.

“Our findings point to the potentially high societal costs of incarcerating children’s caregivers — potentially for generations to come,” said Lead author Beth Gifford of Duke University and Copeland, principal investigator for the Great Smoky Mountains Study. “From a public health perspective, preventing parental incarceration could improve the well-being of children and young adults, as could aiding children and families once a parent figure has been incarcerated.”

Officials noted that with more than 2.7 million children experiencing a parent being sent to jail or prison, it is critical that there is an understanding of the long-term health and social implications of incarceration for children.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that over half of those who are incarcerated are parents of children under age 18.

The full study can be found here.

The news release can be found here.

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