Parental Incarceration: A Culmination of Risks and Their Unequal Outcomes for Children

Many children of incarcerated parents are exposed to a pile-up of risk factors that are mainly out of their control. The culmination can lead to internalizing and externalizing behaviors that we sometimes think are a direct result of the parent’s incarceration. Associate professor Kristin Turney, from the University of California at Irvine, talked to our class recently about the culmination of risk factors leading up to or following a parent’s incarceration, based on her recent paper “The Unequal Consequences of Mass Incarceration for Children.”

Prof. Turney’s analysis found that children respond to incarceration differently based on how likely they are to experience other risks that often co-occur with parental incarceration. Children who experience low levels of risks, meaning that they face a smaller number of stressors in their everyday lives, typically are more negatively affected specifically by the parent’s incarceration. On the other end of the spectrum, children who experience a larger culmination of other stressors (i.e., poverty, parental substance abuse, poor neighborhoods) see little to no additional effects of incarceration on their overall outcomes. This isn’t to say that the incarceration doesn’t have a negative impact on them, but instead they are already extremely bogged down by other risks, so much so that the incarceration may barely add to it in a measurable way.

The findings give strength to the argument that parental incarceration does not affect all groups equally – some groups will be more or less affected. In terms of intervention, reducing intake rates and introducing shorter or alternative sentences may help. For high risk children, interventions are needed even before the parent’s incarceration, perhaps in the form of increased employment prospects for parents and efforts to improve low-income neighborhoods and other universal health, mental health, and educational strategies.


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