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The Urban Institute partnered with local research organizations in three sites to learn more about children of incarcerated parents through the merging and analysis of local and state level criminal justice and human services data. The purpose of the project was to better understand the experiences and needs of children of incarcerated parents in each locality and to explore the involvement of affected families with the criminal justice, child welfare, and social welfare systems. This report presents findings from the sites and lessons learned regarding the merging and analysis of administrative data on this population.
In 2007, the Urban Institute received a grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation to conduct exploratory research on the impact of parental incarceration and the experiences and needs of affected children. As part of this grant, the Urban Institute supported three organizations which set out to merge local and state level criminal justice and human services data to learn about children of incarcerated parents in their localities. The local partners on this project were The Allegheny Department of Human Services in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; The Providence Plan in Providence, Rhode Island; and The Chapin Hall Center for Children in Chicago, Illinois. The purpose of the work was to learn more about the impact of parental incarceration, as well as to explore the possibilities for using criminal justice and human services data to understand the population of affected children.
This report presents findings and lessons learned from the three sites. It begins with a discussion of the datasets obtained by each site and how they were linked, followed by a review of the analyses conducted and the sites’ findings on children of incarcerated parents in their jurisdictions. The report closes with a discussion of the possibilities and challenges involved in merging and analyzing administrative data on this population.
The Datasets and Data Linking
Several types of administrative data provide information on children and families affected by incarceration, and linking multiple datasets can produce a more comprehensive view of the experiences of these families than can any one dataset alone. The three sites in this study drew on varying data sources depending on what was available and suited to their analytic needs. Using techniques that will be discussed in the sections below, they linked records for the same individual across multiple datasets and linked parents to children using records that contained information on both parties, thereby pulling together multiple pieces of data to present a fuller picture of these families.
The obvious sources for data on incarcerated parents are criminal justice agencies such as state and federal corrections departments, local jails, probation and parole agencies, law enforcement agencies, and the courts. These agencies hold data on the criminal histories of incarcerated parents and often maintain additional information such as demographic characteristics, educational and employment backgrounds, and substance abuse histories. Unfortunately, criminal justice agencies rarely track data on the children of those under their supervision. However, data on the children and families of individuals involved in the justice system can be found in any number of other government sources, including birth records, child welfare data, school records, and datasets that track the use of human services (mental health services, for example) and social benefits (TANF, Medicaid, etc.).
Determining which datasets to use involves considering what data are available, how reliable the data are, how they can be linked with other datasets, and how useful they are for the types of analyses one is trying to conduct. For example, all three sites in this study restricted their analyses to incarcerated mothers because they could not locate datasets that consistently and reliably linked incarcerated fathers to their children. The sites looked at various types of criminal justice involvement—prison incarcerations, jail bookings, arrests—and a range of outcomes for the mothers and their children depending on the available data in their jurisdictions. Below we describe the data used by each site and how the datasets were linked.
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