We use data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study to consider the effects of maternal incarceration on 21 caregiver- and teacher-reported behavioral problems among 9-year-old children. The results suggest three primary conclusions. First, children of incarcerated mothers are a disadvantaged group that exhibit high levels of caregiver- and teacher-reported behavioral problems. Second, after we adjust for selection, the effects of maternal incarceration on children’s behavioral problems are consistently null (for 19 of 21 outcomes) and rarely positive (1 of 21) or negative (1 of 21), suggesting that the poor outcomes of these children are driven by disadvantages preceding maternal incarceration rather than incarceration. These effects, however, vary across race/ethnicity, with maternal incarceration diminishing caregiver-reported behavioral problems among non-Hispanic whites. Finally, in models considering both maternal and paternal incarceration, paternal incarceration is associated with more behavioral problems, which is consistent with previous research and suggests that the null effects of maternal incarceration are not artifacts of our sample or analytic decisions.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
One possible reason to expect to see null effects of maternal incarceration is that many children will have already experienced enough stress prior to the incarceration that this event may actually relieve stress (e.g., Wheaton 1990).
Cases in which neither biological parent is the primary caregiver reporting are rare, however. At the nine-year interview, this was the case for 132 children (Bendheim-Thoman Center for Research on Child Wellbeing 2011:5).
Mothers incarcerated before the one-year interview are not excluded from the analytic sample. They are considered to experience incarceration if we have direct or indirect confirmation of incarceration between the one- and nine-year interviews.
In our sample, the overlap between maternal and paternal incarceration (with about one-half experiencing only maternal incarceration and about one-half experiencing both maternal and paternal incarceration) is less pronounced than in other work in this area that uses excellent, although not broadly representative, data. For example, 14 of the 15 cases (93 %) that Arditti et al. (2010) considered included both maternal and paternal incarceration. It is, however, consistent with other research using the FFCW data (e.g., Geller et al. 2009:1199).
Achenbach, T. M. (1992). Manual for the child behavior checklist/2–3 and 1992 profile. Burlington, VT: University of Vermont Department of Psychiatry.
Allison, P. D. (2002). Missing data. New York, NY: Sage Publications.
Arditti, J. A. (2012a). Parental incarceration and the family: Psychological and social effects of imprisonment on children, parents, and caregivers. New York, NY: New York University Press.
Arditti, J. A. (2012b). Child trauma within the context of parental incarceration: A family process perspective. Journal of Family Theory and Review, 4, 181–219.
Arditti, J., Burton, L., & Neeves-Botelho, S. (2010). Maternal distress and parenting in the context of cumulative disadvantage. Family Process, 49, 142–164.
Bendheim-Thoman Center for Research on Child Wellbeing. (2008). Introduction to the Fragile Families public-use data: Baseline, one-year, three-year, and five-year telephone data. Princeton, NJ: Office of Population Research, Princeton University.
Bendheim-Thoman Center for Research on Child Wellbeing. (2011). Data user’s guide for the nine-year follow-up wave of the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study. Princeton, NJ: Office of Population Research, Princeton University.
Berger, L. M., Bruch, S. K., Johnson, E. I., James, S., & Rubin, D. (2009). Estimating the “impact” of out-of-home placement on child well-being: Approaching the problem of selection bias. Child Development, 80, 1856–1876.
Blumstein, A., & Beck, A. J. (1999). Population growth in U.S. prisons, 1980–1996. Crime and Justice, 26, 17–61.
Bowles, S., Gintis, H., & Osborne, M. (2001). Incentive-enhancing preferences: Personality, behavior, and earnings. American Economic Review, 91, 155–158.
Cho, R. M. (2009a). The impact of maternal imprisonment on children’s probability of grade retention: Results from Chicago Public Schools. Journal of Urban Economics, 65, 11–23.
Cho, R. M. (2009b). The impact of maternal incarceration on children’s educational achievement: Results from Chicago Public Schools. Journal of Human Resources, 44, 772–797.
Clarke, J. G., & Adashi, E. Y. (2011). Perinatal care for incarcerated patients: A 25-year-old woman pregnant in jail. Journal of the American Medical Association, 305, 923–929.
Conners, K. (2001). Conners’ rating scales–revised: Technical manual. Toronto, Canada: Multi-Health System.
Dallaire, D. H., Ciccone, A., & Wilson, L. C. (2010). Teachers’ experiences with and expectations of children with incarcerated parents. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 31, 281–290.
Doyle, J. J. (2007). Child protection and child welfare: Measuring the effects of foster care. American Economic Review, 97, 1583–1610.
Doyle, J. J. (2008). Child protection and adult crime: Using investigator assignment to estimate causal effects of foster care. Journal of Political Economy, 116, 746–770.
Enos, S. (2001). Mothering from the inside: Parenting in a women’s prison. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Foster, H., & Hagan, J. (2007). Incarceration and intergenerational social exclusion. Social Problems, 54, 399–433.
Geller, A., Cooper, C. E., Garfinkel, I., Schwartz-Soicher, O., & Mincy, R. B. (2012). Beyond absenteeism: Father incarceration and its effects on children’s development. Demography, 49, 49–76.
Geller, A., Garfinkel, I., Cooper, C. E., & Mincy, R. B. (2009). Parental incarceration and child well-being: Implications for urban families. Social Science Quarterly, 90, 1186–1202.
Giordano, P. C. (2010). Legacies of crime: A follow-up of the children of highly delinquent girls and boys. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Gottfredson, M. R., & Hirschi, T. (1990). A general theory of crime. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Gresham, F. M., & Elliott, S. S. (2007). Social skills rating system. Toronto, Canada: Pearson Publishing.
Hagan, J., & Dinovitzer, R. (1999). Collateral consequences of imprisonment for children, communities, and prisoners. Crime and Justice, 26, 121–162.
Hagan, J., & Foster, H. (2012). Intergenerational educational effects of mass imprisonment in America. Sociology of Education, 85, 259–286.
Hanlon, T. E., Blatchley, R. J., Bennett-Sears, T., O’Grady, K. E., Rose, M., & Callaman, J. M. (2005a). Vulnerability of children of incarcerated addict mothers: Implications for preventive intervention. Children and Youth Services Review, 27, 67–84.
Hanlon, T. E., O’Grady, K. E., Bennett-Sears, T., & Callaman, J. M. (2005b). Incarcerated drug-abusing mothers: Their characteristics and vulnerability. American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 1, 59–77.
Huebner, B. M., & Gustafson, R. (2007). The effect of maternal incarceration on adult offspring involvement in the criminal justice system. Journal of Criminal Justice, 35, 283–296.
Johnson, E. I., & Easterling, B. (2012). Understanding the unique effects of parental incarceration on children: Challenges, progress, and recommendations. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74, 342–356.
Johnston, D. (2006). The wrong road: Efforts to understand the effects of parental crime and incarceration. Criminology and Public Policy, 5, 703–720.
Kessler, R. C., Andrews, G., Mroczek, D., Ustun, B., & Wittchen, H.-U. (1998). The World Health Organization Composite International Diagnostic Interview Short Form (CIDI SF). International Journal of Methods in Psychiatric Research, 7, 171–185.
Knoester, C. (2003). Implications of childhood externalizing problems for young adults. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65, 1073–1080.
Kruttschnitt, C. (2010). The paradox of women’s imprisonment. Daedalus, 139, 32–42.
McLeod, J., & Kaiser, K. (2004). Childhood emotional and behavioral problems and educational attainment. American Sociological Review, 69, 636–658.
Morgan, S. L., & Harding, D. J. (2006). Matching estimators of causal effects: Prospects and pitfalls in theory and practice. Sociological Methods & Research, 35, 3–60.
Mumola, C. J. (2000). Incarcerated parents and their children (Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.
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.
Murray, J., & Farrington, D. P. (2008). Effects of parental imprisonment on children. Crime and Justice, 37, 133–206.
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 & Public Policy, 5, 677–702.
Poehlmann, J. (2005). Children’s family environments and intellectual outcomes during maternal incarceration. Journal of Marriage and Family, 67, 1275–1285.
Reichman, N. E., Teitler, J. O., Garfinkel, I., & McLanahan, S. S. (2001). Fragile Families: Sample and design. Children and Youth Services Review, 23, 303–326.
Roettger, M. E., & Swisher, R. R. (2011). Associations of fathers’ history of incarceration with sons’ delinquency and arrest among black, white, and Hispanic males in the United States. Criminology, 49, 1109–1147.
Rosenbaum, P. R., & Rubin, D. B. (1983). The central role of the propensity score in observational studies for causal effects. Biometrika, 70, 41–55.
Sampson, R. J. (2011). The incarceration ledger: Toward a new era in assessing societal consequences. Criminology & Public Policy, 10, 819–828.
Sampson, R. J., & Laub, J. H. (1993). Crime in the making: Pathways and turning points through life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Siegel, J. (2011). Disrupted childhoods: Children of women in prison. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Swann, C. A., & Sylvester, M. S. (2006). The foster care crisis: What caused caseloads to grow? Demography, 43, 309–335.
Thornberry, T. P., Freeman-Gallant, A., Lizotte, A. J., Crohn, M. D., & Smith, C. A. (2003). Linked lives: The intergenerational transmission of antisocial behavior. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 31, 171–184.
Turanovic, J. J., Rodriguez, N., & Pratt, T. C. (2012). The collateral consequences of incarceration revisited: A qualitative analysis of the effects on caregivers of children of incarcerated parents. Criminology, 50, 913–959.
Turney, K., & Wildeman, C. (2013). Redefining relationships: Explaining the countervailing consequences of paternal incarceration for parenting. American Sociological Review, 78, 925–948.
Wakefield, S., & Wildeman, C. (2011). Mass imprisonment and racial disparities in childhood behavioral problems. Criminology & Public Policy, 10, 793–817.
Wheaton, B. (1990). Life transitions, role histories, and mental health. American Sociological Review, 55, 209–233.
Wildeman, C. (2009). Parental imprisonment, the prison boom, and the concentration of childhood disadvantage. Demography, 46, 265–280.
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.
Wildeman, C., Wakefield, S., & Turney, K. (2013). Misidentifying the effects of parental imprisonment? A comment on Johnson and Easterling (2012). Journal of Marriage and Family, 75, 252–258.
Woodward, L. J., & Fergusson, D. M. (1999). Early conduct problems and later risk of teenage pregnancy in girls. Development and Psychopathology, 11, 127–141.
We thank Amanda Geller, Rachel Dunifon, Richard Berk, Stewart Tolnay, Sara Wakefield, and the anonymous Demography reviewers for their comments. Funders of the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study can be found online (http://www.fragilefamilies.princeton.edu/funders.asp).
About this article
Cite this article
Wildeman, C., Turney, K. Positive, Negative, or Null? The Effects of Maternal Incarceration on Children’s Behavioral Problems. Demography 51, 1041–1068 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-014-0291-z
- Maternal incarceration
- Prison boom
- Child well-being
- Collateral consequences of mass incarceration
- Child behavioral problems