Children of prisoners - maintaining family ties

Literature review - Does parental imprisonment have a causal effect on children?

Although parental imprisonment is a strong predictor of adverse child outcomes, this does not imply that it affects children causally. Children of prisoners might be at risk because of pre-existing disadvantage in their lives, not because parental imprisonment is harmful for children. Prisoners are more likely than the general population to be unemployed, to be of low social class, to have multiple mental health problems, many criminal convictions, marital difficulties, and their own experiences of abuse and neglect (36–38). As three large-scale surveys now show, children of prisoners also experience higher levels of social disadvantage than their peers (26, 32, 39). Thus, it is necessary to consider whether parental imprisonment causes adverse child outcomes, over and above the effects of background adversities. Without experimental evidence on this issue conclusions must be tentative. However, several studies have investigated the effects of parental imprisonment on children while taking into account other risk factors in children’s lives, using statistical controls or matched-control groups on the strengths and weaknesses of these methods (see 25, 40).

In the Cambridge Study, Murray and Farrington (25, 31) found that boys separated because of parental imprisonment had higher rates of antisocial–delinquent behaviour and mental health problems, even after statistically controlling for other childhood risk factors in the Study (including low child IQ, parental criminality, family poverty, and poor parenting). Boys under 10 separated because of parental imprisonment also had higher rates of adverse outcomes than boys whose parents were imprisoned only before the boy’s birth. Both these findings were consistent with the idea that exposure to parental imprisonment causes adverse outcomes for children.

In the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (United States), Huebner and Gustafson (32) found that maternal imprisonment significantly predicted offspring convictions and probation in adulthood, even after statistically controlling for other risk factors (including maternal smoking during pregnancy, maternal delinquency, parental supervision, peer pressure, and child delinquency in adolescence). These results were also consistent with the idea that parental imprisonment caused adverse outcomes for children. In a small-scale study (United States), Stanton (12) compared children of 54 jailed mothers with children of 21 mothers on probation, to try to disentangle effects of parental imprisonment from background risks. Compared to mothers on probation, there were large effects of maternal imprisonment on teachers’ ratings of child problem behaviour, child poor self-concept, and child academic performance.

However, in Project Metropolitan (Sweden), Murray, Janson, and Farrington (41) found that parental imprisonment did not predict offspring criminal behaviour after controlling for levels of parental criminality. This suggested that parental imprisonment did not cause child criminal outcomes in Sweden; rather parental criminality explained the association between the two. In the Mater University Study of Pregnancy (Australia), Bor and his colleagues (42) also found that parental imprisonment did not significantly predict adolescent antisocial behaviour after controlling for background risks (including teenage motherhood, single parenthood at birth, family income, changes in marital status, marital conflict, and parental arrest).

In summary, findings from three studies are consistent with the idea that parental imprisonment has a causal effect on children, but two studies found no effect. Given these mixed findings, further evidence is required to determine whether or not parental imprisonment causes adverse outcomes for children.