Children of incarcerated parents are six times more likely than other children to develop a substance use disorder as adults

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Children of incarcerated parents are six times more likely than other children to develop a substance use disorder as adults and nearly twice as likely to have diagnosable anxiety, according to new research from the Center for Child and Family Policy at the Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy.

In addition, children whose parents were incarcerated are more likely to encounter significant hurdles transitioning into adulthood, including being charged with a felony (35% vs. 11.5%), dropping out of high school (25.5% vs. 5.0%), becoming a teenage parent (14.3% vs. 2.8%), experiencing financial strain (37.2% vs. 17.5%), and being socially isolated (24.5% vs. 9.4%), the study found.

“The increased risk for adverse adult outcomes remained after accounting for childhood psychiatric status and other adversities, suggesting that parental incarceration is associated with profound and long-lasting effects for children,” said co-author William E. Copeland of the University of Vermont, who conducted the research while at Duke.

“This increased risk persisted whether the incarcerated parent was biologically related to the child or not. Risk for adverse adult outcomes increased further with each additional incarcerated parent figure.”

The United States has among the highest incarceration rates 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.

With more than 2.7 million children experiencing a parent being sent to jail or prison, understanding the long-term health and social implications of incarceration for children is critical, the researchers say.

The study was published Friday in JAMA Network Open. Lead author Beth Gifford of Duke University and Copeland, principal investigator for the Great Smoky Mountains Study, along with colleagues from Duke, the University of Vermont and the University of Zurich, analyzed data gathered between 1993 and 2015 on the life experiences of children from the Appalachian Mountains in western North Carolina from age nine until age 30.

Researchers considered all adults who had significant responsibility for the child’s discipline or care to be “parental figures.”

They also interviewed families as many as eight times during childhood. Using those methods, researchers identified a higher prevalence of incarceration by parental figures (23.9 percent) than the 8 to 11 percent previously documented in other population-based studies.

Incarceration rates for parental figures were higher among racial and ethnic minorities: 47.9 percent among American Indians and 42.7 percent among African-Americans, compared with 21.4 percent among whites. Parental incarceration cases overwhelmingly involved fathers (87.9 percent).

“Our findings point to the potentially high societal costs of incarcerating children’s caregivers—potentially for generations to come,” said Gifford. “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.”


Between 1980 and 2000, the rate of imprisonment in the United States more than tripled (West & Sabol, 2008).

On any given day, there are about 1.9 million children in the United States who have a parent in a state or federal prison (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008) and millions more have a parent incarcerated in a county jail.

As the number of individuals under correctional custody who are parents of minor children increases, so does the need to understand the wide-ranging impacts on the families of incarcerated people.

Incarceration of a parent is a stressful event for families and children (Bocknek, Sanderson, & Britner, 2008Kampfner, 1995Nesmith & Ruhland, 2008).

Children of incarcerated parents often experience multiple emotional and social difficulties, including exposure to the parent’s criminal activity, witnessing the parent’s arrest and court proceedings, separation from parents, loss of family income, housing instability, changes in caregiving, stressful visits with the incarcerated parent, and shame or stigma associated with a parent’s involvement in the criminal justice system (Murray, Farrington, & Sekol, 2012). One potential impact of parental incarceration and the stressors associated with it is compromised emotional well-being of children.

Children and adolescents with incarcerated parents are thought to be at elevated risk for mental health problems, though research has produced mixed results.

A recent meta-analysis by Murray et al. (2012) concluded that children of incarcerated parents are no more likely than comparison groups to exhibit poor mental health outcomes. There are several potential explanations for these findings.

First, parental incarceration was measured at different times in each of the individual studies, with some studies including parents’ arrests occurring before children were born.

Children’s mental health was also assessed at a variety of different developmental stages, rather than during adolescence, when mental health problems are most likely to occur. Finally, most studies included in the meta-analysis examined internalizing symptoms, with limited attention paid to other types of mental health problems (e.g. self-injurious behavior, suicide ideation).

Many high-quality studies have produced results that contradict the findings from the meta-analysis.

For example, a study in England found that children of incarcerated parents were more than twice as likely as children in the general population to experience significant mental health problems (Murray & Farrington, 2008b).

A similar study from the United States (R. Johnson, 2009) compared children who had experienced parental incarceration with a non-incarcerated control group and found that after controlling for confounders such as parent education, parent age, and neighborhood quality, children of incarcerated parents were 4.7 times more likely than children of matched controls to exhibit internalizing problems when they were 11–16 years old.

Because there is considerable variability in developmental trajectories for these children, research on risk and protective factors can shed light on the processes of resilience that have the potential to contribute to positive functioning in children of incarcerated parents.

Mental health problems in childhood have important implications for development across the lifespan.

Previous research suggests that adults who experience the onset of depression in childhood or adolescence have more impaired social and occupational functioning and poorer quality of life than those whose depression first begins in adulthood (Zisook et al., 2007).

Furthermore, childhood mental health concerns might contribute to worse outcomes across a variety of domains (Cox, Mills-Koonce, Propper, & Gariepy, 2010) such as low educational attainment, poor occupational functioning, and early childbearing (Rao, 2006). Deleterious effects of parental incarceration on the mental health of offspring are likely to persist throughout the life course (Colman, Wadsworth, Croudace, & Jones, 2007Fergusson & Woodward, 2002).

For example, Murray and Farrington (2008a) found that men who had experienced parental incarceration during their childhood were significantly more likely to have high levels of anxiety and depression at age 48 than those in a comparison group.

Adolescence is characterized by significant changes in social, emotional, and cognitive capacities, and it is a particularly sensitive period for mental health concerns, with emotional problems often onsetting during these years.

The prevalence of emotional and behavioral disorders in children has been estimated at 13% in childhood (Merikangas, He, Brody, et al., 2010) and over 30% by adolescence, including 22.2% with a disorder of severe impairment (Merikangas, He, Burstein, et al., 2010).

Mental health problems in adolescence are a particularly salient issue for children of incarcerated parents because mental health problems might contribute to adolescents’ problem behavior and intergenerational patterns of low achievement, criminality, and poverty (Farrington, Jolliffe, Loeber, Stouthamer-Loeber, & Kalb, 2001).

Although strong parent-child relationships have been investigated as a protective factor for younger children of incarcerated parents (Mackintosh, Myers, & Kennon, 2006Poehlmann, 2005), there are no studies in the published literature examining how the quality of parent-child relationships in adolescence might buffer children of incarcerated parents from negative mental health outcomes.

This study addresses this gap in the literature by examining the associations between parent-child relationships and mental health indicators in adolescents with currently and formerly incarcerated parents.


More information: Elizabeth J. Gifford et al, Association of Parental Incarceration With Psychiatric and Functional Outcomes of Young Adults, JAMA Network Open (2019). DOI: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.10005

Journal information: JAMA Network Open
Provided by Duke University

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