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The Long Arm of Maternal Incarceration: Indirect Associations with Children’s Social–Emotional Development

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A growing body of research reveals a connection between maternal incarceration and various child development outcomes. Even so, little is known about how the timing of maternal incarceration may shape the social–emotional development of young children and the role of maternal mental health in mediating this association. Using a sample of 1097 mothers (18–52 years old, 47.6% white) and children (aged 12–48 months) receiving home visiting services in Wisconsin, this study examined the intergenerational effect of incarceration before a child’s birth on child social–emotional development, and whether this association was mediated by maternal mental health. While incarceration prior to a child’s birth was not directly associated with child social–emotional outcomes, path analysis revealed an indirect association between mother’s incarceration prior to a child’s birth and child social–emotional problems through maternal mental health problems. Findings suggest that formerly incarcerated mothers may experience long-lasting mental health concerns that can undermine child social–emotional development. To optimize outcomes, practitioners may consider services that address the mental health, social support, and instrumental needs of mothers and children who have been impacted by mass incarceration.

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The authors would like to thank that families that participated in the FACT study.


Anthony Gómez’ time on this project was funded by the Institute for Child and Family Well-Being’s Predoctoral Fellowship.

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Correspondence to Anthony Gómez.

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The authors declare no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, or publication of this article.

Ethical Approval

Families and Children Thriving (FACT) Study protocols were approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (FWA #00006171).

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Survey data were collected from study participants (mothers) after obtaining their informed consent.

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Gómez, A., Mersky, J.P., Plummer Lee, C. et al. The Long Arm of Maternal Incarceration: Indirect Associations with Children’s Social–Emotional Development. Child Adolesc Soc Work J (2023).

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