Children of prisoners - maintaining family ties

Literature review - Different effects of parental imprisonment on different children

Children might react to parental imprisonment in different ways, depending on their individual characteristics, family environments, and wider social factors. Factors that influence how children react to parental imprisonment are called moderators (26, 44). Identifying moderators can help to explain why some children have adverse outcomes after parental imprisonment while others lead normal lives. Although there is not space to review all potential moderators here, a few key findings are noted (25).

Maternal imprisonment might be more harmful than paternal imprisonment for children, because children are more likely to live with their mother before her imprisonment (60, 61); children are less likely to be placed with their other parent when mothers are imprisoned and are more likely to be placed in foster care (60, 61); and because imprisoned mothers are likely to be held further away from home than imprisoned fathers (61, 62), so children may be less likely to visit their imprisoned mother. However, small-scale studies report mixed findings about the different effects of maternal and paternal imprisonment on children (7, 49, 63), and there is a need for large-scale investigation of this issue.

Comparing the effects of parental imprisonment on 7,277 girls and 7,595 boys in Project Metropolitan, Murray, Janson, and Farrington (41) found that parental imprisonment in childhood was a strong predictor of adult criminal behaviour for both males and females, but the effects were slightly stronger for females. In the same study, the effects of parental imprisonment were compared according to the age of children at the time of parental imprisonment (birth to six versus age seven to 19). The effects of parental imprisonment during both age periods were very similar (odds ratios for child offending in adulthood were 2.4 for the younger children and 2.6 for the older children, and were not significantly different).

‘Resiliency’ research suggests that children can be protected from adversity by having an above average IQ and an easy temperament, as well as good parental attachment and bonding and positive peer relations (64-67). There is little research on resiliency processes among children of prisoners, but initial findings suggest that children may be protected from adverse effects of parental imprisonment by having a high IQ (68), high levels of hopefulness and social support (69), and stable and affectionate care (15, 70).

Two exploratory studies in the United Kingdom suggest that black families of prisoners (71) sometimes experience racism from police and prison staff, and that black children with parents in prison are particularly vulnerable to racism from peers (72). Families of foreign nationals (73) can also experience particular difficulties keeping in touch.

Using data from the Cambridge Study (England) and Project Metropolitan (Sweden), Murray, Janson and Farrington (41) compared as closely as possible the effects of parental imprisonment on child offending in England and Sweden. Children were born in the same year in the two studies (1953), and both cohorts lived in capital cities (London and Stockholm). Additionally, the samples were matched as closely as possible on child sex (male), class (working class), age at the time of parental imprisonment (birth to 19), and age at the time of outcome (19 to 30). The results showed that parental imprisonment was a strong predictor and a possible cause of adult offending behaviour in England, but not in Sweden. It is possible that, unlike in England, Swedish children may have been protected from the adverse effects of parental imprisonment by more family-friendly prison policies, a welfare-oriented juvenile justice system, an extended social welfare system, a less diverse population, and more sympathetic public attitudes toward crime and punishment. As Bronfenbrenner (74, p. 7) argued, child development may be “enhanced by the adoption of public policies and practices that create additional settings and societal roles conducive to family life”. Further cross-national comparisons should investigate the protective effect of social policies for children of prisoners.

In conclusion, parental imprisonment is a strong risk factor for child antisocial–delinquent behaviour, mental health problems, and other adverse life outcomes. However, conclusive evidence is lacking on whether parental imprisonment causes these outcomes for children. It is possible that parental imprisonment harms children because of parent–child separation, economic strain, reduced quality child care, and stigma. The effects of parental imprisonment on children may differ according to children’s characteristics, family characteristics, and the wider social context in which children live.

Although there are only a few large-scale studies of parental imprisonment, it is clear that children of prisoners are a highly vulnerable group, and are likely to need extensive support. Policy reforms and interventions should be designed to support children of prisoners. Interventions should be based on evidence about why children of prisoners are at risk. For example, if parent–child separation is an important contributor to adverse outcomes of prisoners’ children, prisoner–child contact could be encouraged to reduce child stress, particularly through more child-friendly visiting arrangements at prisons. If economic strain contributes to adverse outcomes of prisoners’ children, financial assistance might be made available, for example through the provision of emergency benefit funds, a reduction in the costs of telephone calls between prison and home, and schemes to increase prisoner employment. If parenting strain is an important contributor to children’s problems, a range of parenting programmes could be used to support children of prisoners. On these, and various other policy options to support children of prisoners, see Murray and Farrington (75). Resiliency research might highlight other ways in which the harmful effects of parental imprisonment on children can be prevented. There is an urgent need to conduct more large-scale research on children of prisoners to provide appropriate support for this vulnerable population.