, Volume 49, Issue 1, pp 49–76 | Cite as

Beyond Absenteeism: Father Incarceration and Child Development

  • Amanda GellerEmail author
  • Carey E. Cooper
  • Irwin Garfinkel
  • Ofira Schwartz-Soicher
  • Ronald B. Mincy


High rates of incarceration among American men, coupled with high rates of fatherhood among men in prison, have motivated recent research on the effects of parental imprisonment on children’s development. We use data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study to examine the relationship between paternal incarceration and developmental outcomes for approximately 3,000 urban children. We estimate cross-sectional and longitudinal regression models that control not only for fathers’ basic demographic characteristics and a rich set of potential confounders, but also for several measures of pre-incarceration child development and family fixed effects. We find significant increases in aggressive behaviors and some evidence of increased attention problems among children whose fathers are incarcerated. The estimated effects of paternal incarceration are stronger than those of other forms of father absence, suggesting that children with incarcerated fathers may require specialized support from caretakers, teachers, and social service providers. The estimated effects are stronger for children who lived with their fathers prior to incarceration but are also significant for children of nonresident fathers, suggesting that incarceration places children at risk through family hardships including and beyond parent-child separation.


Incarceration Child well-being Family instability Child development 



This research was funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. We thank them for their support but acknowledge that the findings and conclusions presented in this report are those of the authors alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Foundation. The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study was supported by Grant R01HD36916 from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), and the project described in this article was supported by Award Number R24HD058486 from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver NICHD. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver NICHD or the National Institutes of Health. We are thankful for the suggestions of the Fragile Families Working Group and of the reviewers and Editor of Demography.


  1. Aarnoudse-Moens, C. S. H., Weisgias-Kuperus, N., Van Goudoever, J. B., & Oosterlaan, J. (2009). Meta-analysis of neurobehavioral outcomes in very preterm and/or very low birth weight children. Pediatrics, 124, 717–728.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Achenbach, T. M., & Rescorla, L. A. (2000). Manual for the AESBA preschool forms and profiles. Burlington: University of Vermont, Research Center for Children, Youth, and Families.Google Scholar
  3. Amato, P. R. (2006). Marital discord, divorce, and children’s well-being: Results from a 20-year longitudinal study of two generations. In A. Clarke-Stewart & J. F. Dunn (Eds.), Families count: Effects on child and adolescent development (pp. 179–202). New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Anderson, E. (1999). Code of the street: Decency, violence, and the moral life of the inner city. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.Google Scholar
  5. Arditti, J. A., Lambert-Shute, J., & Joest, K. (2003). Saturday morning at the jail: Implications of incarceration for families and children. Family Relations, 52, 195–204.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Arditti, J. A., Smock, S. A., & Parkman, T. S. (2005). “It’s been hard to be a father”: A qualitative exploration of incarcerated fatherhood. Fathering, 3, 267–288.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Argys, L., Peters, E., Cook, S., Garasky, S., Nepomnyaschy, L., & Sorensen, E. (2006). Measuring contact between children and nonresident fathers. In S. Hofferth & L. Casper (Eds.), Handbook of measurement issues in family research (pp. 375–398). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  8. Bank, L., Dishion, T., Skinner, M., & Patterson, G. R. (1990). Method variance in structural equation modeling: Living with GLOP. In G. R. Patterson (Ed.), Depression and aggression in family interaction (pp. 247–279). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  9. Bloom, D. (2006). Employment-focused programs for ex-prisoners: What have we learned, what are we learning, and where should we go from here? In Research on prisoner reentry: What do we know and what do we want to know. Ann Arbor: Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan. Google Scholar
  10. Bowlby, J. (1973). Separation: Anxiety and anger. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  11. Braman, D. S. (2004). Doing time on the outside: Incarceration and family life in urban America. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.Google Scholar
  12. Caspi, A., Taylor, A., Smart, M., Jackson, J., Tagami, S., & Moffitt, T. E. (2001). Can women provide reliable information about their children’s fathers? Cross-informant agreement about men’s lifetime antisocial behaviour. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry & Allied Disciplines, 42, 915–920.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Comfort, M. (2008). Doing time together: Love and family in the shadow of the prison. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  14. Crosnoe, R., & Cooper, C. E. (2010). Economically disadvantaged children’s transitions into elementary school: Linking family and school contexts to inform policy. American Educational Research Journal, 47, 258–291.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Deary, I. J., Whiteman, M. C., Starr, J. M., Whalley, L. J., & Fox, H. C. (2004). The impact of childhood intelligence on later life: Following up the Scottish mental surveys of 1932 and 1947. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86, 130–147.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Dickman, S. J. (1990). Functional and dysfunctional impulsivity: Personality and cognitive correlates. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 95–102.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Edin, K. (2000). Few good men: Why poor mothers don’t marry or remarry. American Prospect, 11, 26–31.Google Scholar
  18. Edin, K., Nelson, T. J., & Paranal, R. (2004). Fatherhood and incarceration as potential turning points in the criminal careers of unskilled men. In M. Pattillo, D. F. Weiman, & B. Western (Eds.), Imprisoning America: The social effects of mass incarceration (pp. 46–75). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
  19. Eiden, R. D., Edwards, E. P., & Leonard, K. E. (2007). A conceptual model for the development of externalizing behavior problems among kindergarten children of alcoholic families: Role of parenting and children’s self-regulation. Developmental Psychology, 43, 1187–1201.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Farrington, D. P. (1998). Predictors, causes, and correlates of male youth violence. Crime and Justice, 24, 421–475.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Geller, A., Garfinkel, I., Cooper, C. E., & Mincy, R. B. (2009). Parental incarceration and child wellbeing: Implications for urban families. Social Science Quarterly, 90, 1186–1202.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Geller, A., Garfinkel, I., & Western, B. (2011). Incarceration and support for children in fragile families. Demography, 48, 25–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Glaze, L. E., & Maruschak, L. M. (2009). Parents in prison and their minor children (Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report). Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice.Google Scholar
  24. Golub, A., Johnson, B. D., Taylor, A., & Liberty, H. J. (2002). The validity of arrestees’ self-reports: Variations across questions and persons. Justice Quarterly, 19, 477–502.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Gottfredson, M., & Hirschi, T. (1990). A general theory of crime. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  26. Greene, W. H. (2003). Econometric analysis. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
  27. Groves, R. M. (2004). Survey errors and survey costs. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.Google Scholar
  28. Hairston, C. F. (1998). The forgotten parent: Understanding the forces that influence incarcerated fathers’ relationships with their children. Child Welfare, 77, 617–639.Google Scholar
  29. Harrison, P. M., & Beck, A. J. (2005). Prisoners in 2004 (Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin). Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.Google Scholar
  30. Jacobs, E., & Western, B. (2007). Report on the evaluation of the ComALERT prisoner reentry program. Brooklyn, NY: Kings County District Attorney.Google Scholar
  31. Johnson, E. I., & Waldfogel, J. (2002). Parental incarceration: Recent trends and implications for child welfare. Social Service Review, 76, 460–479.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Kahn, R. S., Zuckerman, B., Bauchner, H., Homer, C. J., & Wise, P. H. (2002). Women’s health after pregnancy and child outcomes at age 3 years: A prospective cohort study. American Journal of Public Health, 92, 1312–1318.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Kaushal, N. (2007). Do food stamps cause obesity? Evidence from immigrant experience. Journal of Health Economics, 26, 968–991.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Lewis, C. E., Garfinkel, I., & Gao, Q. (2007). Incarceration and unwed fathers in fragile families. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 34(3), 77–94.Google Scholar
  35. Lindquist, C., & Bir, A. (2008). The national evaluation of the responsible fatherhood, marriage and family strengthening grants for incarcerated and re-entering fathers and their partners: Program overview and evaluation summary (ASPE Research Brief). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.Google Scholar
  36. Lundberg, S., McLanahan, S., & Rose, E. (2007). Child gender and father involvement in fragile families. Demography, 44, 79–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. McHale, S. M., Kim, J.-Y., Dotterer, A. M., Crouter, A. C., & Booth, A. (2009). The development of gendered interests and personality qualities from middle childhood through adolescence: A biosocial analysis. Child Development, 80, 482–495.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. McLoyd, V. C. (1998). Socioeconomic disadvantage and child development. American Psychologist, 53, 185–204.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Meadows, S. O., McLanahan, S. S., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2007). Parental depression and anxiety and early childhood behavior problems across family types. Journal of Marriage and Family, 69, 1162–1177.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Moeller, F. G., Barratt, E. S., Dougherty, D. M., Schmitz, J. M., & Swann, A. C. (2001). Psychiatric aspects of impulsivity. American Journal of Psychiatry, 158, 1783–1793.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Murray, J., & Farrington, D. P. (2005). Parental imprisonment: Effects on boys’ antisocial behaviour and delinquency through the life-course. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 46, 1269–1278.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Murray, J., & Farrington, D. P. (2008a). The effects of parental imprisonment on children. Crime and Justice, 37, 133–206.Google Scholar
  43. Murray, J., & Farrington, D. P. (2008b). Parental imprisonment: Long-lasting effects on boys’ internalizing problems through the life course. Development and Psychopathology, 20, 273–290.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Murray, J., Farrington, D. P., Sekol, I., & Olsen, R. F. (2009). Effects of parental imprisonment on child antisocial behaviour and mental health: A systematic review. In Campbell Systematic Reviews. Oslo, Norway: The Campbell Collaboration.Google Scholar
  45. New York Times. (2009, December 25). Smart answers to recidivism. P. A30.Google Scholar
  46. Parke, R., & Clarke-Stewart, K. A. (2002, January 30–31). Effects of parental incarceration on young children. Paper prepared for the conference “From Prison to Home,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, DC.Google Scholar
  47. Petersilia, J. (2003). When prisoners come home: Parole and prisoner re-entry. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  48. Phillips, S. D., Erkanli, A., Keeler, G. P., Costello, E. J., & Angold, A. (2006). Disentangling the risks: Parent criminal justice involvement and children’s exposure to family risks. Criminology and Public Policy, 5, 677–702.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Pianta, R. C., Cox, M. J., & Snow, K. L. (2007). School readiness and the transition to kindergarten in the era of accountability. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.Google Scholar
  50. Reichman, N., Teitler, J., Garfinkel, I., & McLanahan, S. (2001). Fragile families: Sample and design. Children and Youth Services Review, 23, 303–326.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Roy, K. M., & Dyson, O. L. (2005). Gatekeeping in context: Babymama drama and the involvement of incarcerated fathers. Fathering, 3, 267–288.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Sampson, R. J., & Laub, J. H. (1990). Crime and deviance over the life course: The salience of adult social bonds. American Sociological Review, 55, 609–627.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Schwartz-Soicher, O., Geller, A., & Garfinkel, I. (2011). The effects of paternal incarceration on material hardship. Social Service Review, 85, 447–473.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Solomon, A. L., & Zweig, J. (2006, November 6). Overview of the issue: Parents in the criminal justice system and its impact on children and families. In Children of Parents in the Criminal Justice System: Children at Risk. Bethesda, MD.Google Scholar
  55. Sroufe, L. A. (1988). The role of infant-caregiver attachment in development. In J. Belsky & T. Nezworski (Eds.), Clinical implications of attachment (pp. 18–40). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  56. Swisher, R. R., & Waller, M. R. (2008). Confining fatherhood: Incarceration and paternal involvement among nonresident white, African American, and Latino fathers. Journal of Family Issues, 29, 1067–1088.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Tach, L., Mincy, R., & Edin, K. (2010). Parenting as a “package deal”: Relationships, fertility, and nonresident father involvement among unmarried parents. Demography, 47, 181–204.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Wakefield, S., & Wildeman, C. (2011). Mass imprisonment and racial disparities in childhood behavioral problems. Criminology and Public Policy, 10, 793–817.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Waller, M. R., & Swisher, R. R. (2006). Fathers’ risk factors in fragile families: Implications for “healthy” relationships and father involvement. Social Problems, 53, 392–420.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Wechsler, D. (1981). Wechsler adult intelligence scale—Revised (WAIS-R Manual). New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, for The Psychological Corporation.Google Scholar
  61. Western, B. (2006). Punishment and inequality in America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
  62. Western, B., Kling, J. R., & Weiman, D. F. (2001). The labor market consequences of incarceration. Crime and Delinquency, 47, 410–427.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Western, B., & Wildeman, C. (2009). The black family and mass incarceration. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 621, 221–242.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Whitaker, R. C., Orzol, S. M., & Kahn, R. S. (2006). Maternal mental health, substance use, and domestic violence in the year after delivery and subsequent behavior problems in children at age 3 years. Archives of General Psychiatry, 63, 551–560.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Wilbur, M. B., Marani, J. E., Appugliese, D., Woods, R., Siegel, J. A., Cabral, H. J., & Frank, D. A. (2007). Socioemotional effects of fathers’ incarceration on low-income, urban, school-aged children. Pediatrics, 120, e678–e685.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Wildeman, C. (2010). Paternal incarceration and children’s physically aggressive behaviors: Evidence from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study. Social Forces, 89, 285–309.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Wu, L. L., & Wolfe, B. L. (2001). Out of wedlock: Causes and consequences of nonmarital fertility. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Population Association of America 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Amanda Geller
    • 1
    Email author
  • Carey E. Cooper
    • 2
  • Irwin Garfinkel
    • 3
  • Ofira Schwartz-Soicher
    • 4
  • Ronald B. Mincy
    • 4
  1. 1.Columbia Population Research CenterColumbia University Schools of Social Work and LawNew YorkUSA
  2. 2.School of Social and Family DynamicsArizona State UniversityTempeUSA
  3. 3.Columbia Population Research CenterColumbia University School of Social WorkNew YorkUSA
  4. 4.Columbia University School of Social WorkNew YorkUSA

Personalised recommendations