More than 2.7 million children have an incarcerated parent, and many more have experienced a parent’s incarceration at some point. Research finds that parental incarceration negatively affects children’s physical, mental, and emotional health. One might presume that child outcomes improve when a parent returns from incarceration, but the evidence shows that reentry can be difficult for parents and their children.
Research to date provides little information about effects on children when fathers return home from prison or jail, especially whether children’s behavioral problems persist when the father returns. To help fill this gap, this brief explores children’s behaviors when a father is incarcerated and when he is released. We seek to understand whether the negative child outcomes from parental incarceration persist even after parents return home.
Using data on families living in several large cities, we also examine these differences by gender and race and ethnicity. Incarceration rates vary greatly by race, with black men almost six times more likely to be imprisoned than white men.
How does a father’s reentry affect children?
Our analyses show that behavioral problems are greater for boys whose fathers are serving time in prison or jail than for boys whose fathers have not been incarcerated. Children of incarcerated black and Hispanic fathers also exhibit more behavioral problems than the children of black and Hispanic fathers who have never been incarcerated.
We do not see similar effects of incarceration on children of incarcerated white fathers compared with children of white fathers who have never been incarcerated. After a father leaves jail or prison, the adverse impacts of incarceration on behavior persist for boys (but not for girls) and for black and Hispanic children.
What is the potential link between incarceration and a child externalizing and internalizing behaviors?
Research suggests that a parent’s incarceration might have negative consequences for children socioeconomically, psychologically, and on health and well-being, particularly through the exposure to stress and trauma.
Our findings further support that paternal incarceration might increase children’s behavioral problems, shown outwardly as greater emotional displays, aggressiveness, or defiance or shown inwardly as sadness, withdrawal, or anxiety and depression.
Even after considering socioeconomic factors, we see a strong link between a father’s incarceration and release and problematic behaviors in children, suggesting that the loss of economic and other material supports is not the only reason for the outcomes. Researchers and child advocates point to additional contributors to poor child behavior, including changes in the household structure and changes in caregiving arrangements.
What might explain the racial, ethnic, and gender differences in how a father’s incarceration affects his children?
Research has not concluded why some children experience certain outcomes from paternal incarceration while others do not. Incarceration is not random—it is an experience disproportionately concentrated in communities of color and communities of concentrated disadvantage.
Mass incarceration is a community-level phenomenon that has spillover effects for all residents in a community, and those who experience multiple marginalized statuses can experience increased negative outcomes. For example, a black child would be negatively affected by both systemic racism and having an incarcerated parent. Children facing multiple hostile conditions might have a harder time coping with a parent’s incarceration.
When considering gender differences in child outcomes, the broader literature suggests that boys are more vulnerable to disruption than girls. Some suggest that cultural expectations placed on boys emphasize “toughness” and discourage emotional expression. Boys are also more likely to lose the parent of the same gender. Other research suggests a father’s incarceration affects aggressive behavior in boys more than in girls because fathers are more involved with their sons than with their daughters.
Research has a hard time disentangling why we see the differences in outcomes between boys and girls and between black, Hispanic, and white children. But to understand and to address the challenges facing children with incarcerated and returning parents, we need to continue examining racial and ethnic and gender differences.
What program and policy responses might combat the effects on children?
Emerging research on programs serving incarcerated parents and their children suggests that promoting and improving family relationships and parenting skills during incarceration can help returning fathers and their children. Other studies show that prerelease planning and wraparound support services postrelease could ease the transition for returning parents and their families.
Complex and fluid family dynamics contribute to families’ experiences, risks, and outcomes. Some research and advocates emphasize that policymakers should consider children’s needs and relationships with the incarcerated parent before making universal policies.
We encourage more research on how parental incarceration affects children and how the effects persist to further aid policymakers and program developers to design better services to help returning citizens and their children. Our findings also raise concern about long-term developmental impacts on children and whether current sentencing policies contributing to mass incarceration sufficiently consider the full costs and consequences, including disproportionate harm by race or ethnicity on children, families, and society. Read the technical appendix.