Positive, Negative, or Null? The Effects of Maternal Incarceration on Children’s Behavioral Problems

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    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).

  2. 2.

    In Hagan and Foster’s (2012:48) analysis, all information on the number of children who had a mother imprisoned comes from their Table 1, which indicates that 1 % of the 4,655 children in the sample experienced that event.

  3. 3.

    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).

  4. 4.

    These scales are not designed to be combined to generate a global measure (Conners 2001; Gresham and Elliott 2007).

  5. 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.

  6. 6.

    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).

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Acknowledgments

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).

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Correspondence to Christopher Wildeman.

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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

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Keywords

  • Maternal incarceration
  • Prison boom
  • Child well-being
  • Collateral consequences of mass incarceration
  • Child behavioral problems