Incarcerating Parents Effects on the Next Generation

A new study found the children of incarcerated parents and caregivers were at greater risk of psychiatric disorders and societal disenfranchisement. Based on a longitudinal study (the Great Smoky Mountains Study that ran from 1993 to 2000), researchers performed a Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Assessment that looked at parental incarceration, childhood psychiatric diagnoses, and other adversities, before following up with the children at ages 19, 21, 25, and 30 years of age. The findings showed that parental incarceration was associated with a “higher likelihood of almost every childhood emotional and behavioral disorder except anxiety and substance disorders.” Conduct disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, any depressive diagnosis, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder were particularly identified as present in the offspring. Additionally, low family socioeconomic status, family instability, family dysfunction, and maltreatment of children was increased in children and families where a parent was incarcerated. For the young adults ranging in age between 19 and 30 years old, parental incarceration had lasting effects including being associated with anxiety, substance use disorder (especially illicit drug use), non-completion of high school, early parenthood, and being socially isolated. Having had an incarcerated parent was also associated with increased legal involvement (the adult children having a felony charge or incarceration themselves) and increased incarceration strain. Compared to children who did not have an incarcerated parent, adult children of incarcerated parents were more likely to report health, legal, financial, or social consequences in adulthood.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation with Kids Count published state data on parent incarceration for 2016-2017 and found that 32,088, or 1 in 9, West Virginia children ever had an incarcerated parent. These statistics represent one of every nine West Virginia children who are at greater risk for a psychiatric disorder, financial difficulty in adulthood, social isolation, or future incarceration. With West Virginia’s comingled substance use epidemic and incarceration rates, these numbers sadly make sense in a generational context. Evidence of the psychiatric effects of a parent’s incarceration on the next generation makes raising the issue imperative as part of sentence mitigation during client representation. Mitigation and advocacy for the parents now extends to the next generation.

For more on the JAMA Network Open study, click here, and a summary of the study can be found here.

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