Jailed Parents and their Young Children: Residential Instability, Homelessness, and Behavior Problems

Abstract

This study examined family disruption in the form of jailed parents’ housing instability in the year leading up to their most recent incarceration, including periods of homelessness with and without their children, and links between parental housing instability and children’s behavior problems. Using the Family Stress Proximal Process Model to understand the links between stressors related to family disruption and child outcomes, the study analyzed data from interviews and surveys with 165 jailed fathers and mothers with young children (age 2–6 years) regarding jailed parents’ reports of housing instability during the 12 months prior to their incarceration and child behavior problems. Analyses showed that housing instability, homelessness, and recidivism in jailed parents were relatively common, with a significant proportion of the disruptions occurring with young children, although many disruptions involved parental absence from children. Results indicated that the more months that parents lived with their children prior to incarceration in jail during the past year, the less housing instability the parents experienced. Additionally, multiple regression analyses revealed that more housing instability experienced by parents in the year leading up to their incarceration in jail were associated with elevations in children’s internalizing and externalizing behavior problems. These results have implications for future research that explores family disruption as a mechanism in understanding recidivism and homelessness among adults and risk for child behavior problems in families affected by parental incarceration.

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Acknowledgements

A portion of this research was conducted as part of the first author’s honors thesis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This research was supported a grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (R21HD068581, PI: Poehlmann-Tynan) as well as a center grant from the National Institutes of Health that funds the Waisman Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (P30HD03352, PI: Mailick). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the NIH. Special thanks to Racine, Dane, and Sauk County Sheriff’s offices and jail staff as well as University of Wisconsin Extension, especially Beverlee Baker and Mary Huser, for their support of the project and to the families who participated in this research.

Author Contributions

L.M.: wrote the first draft of the paper as part of his senior honors thesis. N.J.: assisted in data management and collaborated in writing the background information. C.B.: conducted jailed parent interviews and assisted with data entry and analysis. H.R.: added the housing timeline measure and conducted jailed parent interviews; assisted with data entry. L.W.: conducted jailed parent interviews. J.P.T.: designed the study, secured funding, responsible for IRB oversight, executed the study, supervised study personnel, assisted with data analyses, and contributed to the writing of each section.

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Correspondence to Luke Muentner.

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All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. IRB approval for the study was issued by the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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Muentner, L., Holder, N., Burnson, C. et al. Jailed Parents and their Young Children: Residential Instability, Homelessness, and Behavior Problems. J Child Fam Stud 28, 370–386 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-018-1265-3

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Keywords

  • Child behavior problems
  • Homelessness
  • Incarcerated parents
  • Jail
  • Residential instability