kids and incarceration

KIDS & INCARCERATION
UCI sociologist finds parental incarceration more detrimental to kids’ health than divorce or death of mother, father

The  U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with more than 2 million people currently behind bars. How this affects their families is the focus of sociologist Kristin Turney’s work. She’s found significant health and behavioral problems in children of incarcerated parents, and in some cases, parental incarceration can be more detrimental to a child’s well-being than divorce or the death of a parent.

“We know that poor people and racial minorities are incarcerated at higher rates than the rest of the population, and incarceration further hinders the health and development of children who are already experiencing significant challenges,” she says.

 

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Parental incarceration is significantly related to learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), behavioral or conduct problems, developmental delays, and speech or language problems.

 

Parental incarceration is significantly related to learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), behavioral or conduct problems, developmental delays, and speech or language problems, according to Turney. When comparing children with similar demographic, socioeconomic and familial characteristics, she found that having a parent in jail was linked to a greater incidence of asthma, obesity, ADHD, depression and anxiety. Compared to divorce, parental incarceration is more strongly associated with both ADHD and behavioral problems; compared to the death of a parent, it’s more strongly associated with ADHD.

“Children’s health disadvantages are an overlooked and unintended consequence of mass incarceration,” Turney says. “Incarceration, given its unequal distribution across the population, may have implications for racial and social class inequalities in children’s health.”

It’s becoming such a pervasive issue that “Sesame Street” recently introduced a Muppet named Alex, whose father is in jail, as a way to address the stigma. About 2.6 million children in the U.S. have a parent in jail or prison at any given time, she says.

The chance of having an incarcerated parent is especially high in certain groups.

“Among black children with fathers without a high school diploma, about 50 percent will experience parental incarceration by age 14, compared with 7 percent of white children with similarly educated fathers,” Turney says.

Turney’s recent work on the topic appears in the Journal of Health & Social Behavior, a publication of the American Sociological Association.


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