Children of prisoners - maintaining family ties

Literature review - Parental imprisonment as a risk factor for adverse child outcomes

The first question for research is whether parental imprisonment is associated with adverse outcomes for children. If there is no association, it is unlikely parental imprisonment causes adverse child outcomes. To test for an association, rates of the outcome need to be compared between children of prisoners and children without imprisoned parents. Associations between parental imprisonment and child outcomes can be reported using odds ratios. Odds ratios are interpretable as the increase in the odds of an outcome associated with parental imprisonment (compared with no parental imprisonment) (See footnote). An odds ratio of 2.0 or greater is considered to indicate a strong association between parental imprisonment and child outcomes (29).

Recently, Murray and Farrington investigated the association between parental imprisonment and child antisocial–delinquent behaviour, mental health problems and other adverse outcomes, in the Cambridge Study (25, 26, 30, 31). Outcomes were compared between 23 boys who were separated because of parental imprisonment (between birth and age ten), and four control groups:

  1. boys with no history of parental imprisonment or parent–child separation (up to age ten)
  2. boys separated because of hospitalisation or death
  3. boys separated for other reasons
  4. boys whose parents were imprisoned only before the boy’s birth.

Parental imprisonment during childhood was a strong predictor of antisocial–delinquent behaviour in the Cambridge Study (26,31). For example, of boys separated because of parental imprisonment, 65 per cent were convicted themselves between ages 19 and 32, compared with 21 per cent of boys with no history of parental imprisonment or separation. This translates into a large odds ratio (OR = 7.0) that is statistically significant (95% Confidence Interval (CI) = 2.8, 17.5).

Four other large-scale surveys of children investigated the association between parental imprisonment and child antisocial–delinquent behaviour (Huebner (32), Bor (33), Kandel (34), Murray (35)). To summarise these results, Murray and Farrington (25) calculated an average odds ratio for these four studies and the Cambridge Study. The average odds ratio was 3.4, showing that children of prisoners have about three times the risk of antisocial–delinquent outcomes of their peers.

Parental imprisonment during childhood was also a strong risk factor for boys’ mental health problems in the Cambridge Study (25). For example, of boys separated because of parental imprisonment, 36 per cent had high levels of anxiety or depression at age 48, compared to 15 per cent of boys with no history of parental imprisonment or separation. There are no other large-scale longitudinal studies of mental health outcomes among children of prisoners.

Parental imprisonment was also a risk factor for other adverse life outcomes, including school failure, drug abuse, and unemployment in the Cambridge Study (25). For example, of boys separated because of parental imprisonment, 35 per cent were rated as having “poor life success” at age 48, compared to nine per cent of boys with no history of parental imprisonment or separation. ‘Poor life success’ referred to having a history of poor accommodation, poor cohabitation, poor employment, heavy alcohol use, drug use, anxiety or depression, and offending behaviour.

In summary, the evidence to date suggests that there is a strong association between parental imprisonment and adverse outcomes for children. Children of prisoners have about three times the risk for antisocial–delinquent behaviour, mental health problems and other adverse outcomes, compared to their peers.

Footnote

Odds ratios (ORs) are calculated from 2 x 2 contingency tables using the following formula:

No outcome

Outcome

Non-risk category

a

b

Risk category

c

d