In fact, according to researchers from the University of California, Irvine (UC Irvine), for some types of health problems, having a parent behind bars can be more detrimental to a child’s well-being than divorce or the death of a parent.
When comparing children with similar demographic, socioeconomic, and family characteristics, the study found that having a parent in prison or jail was linked to a greater incidence of attention deficit disorder/attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD), behavioral or conduct problems, learning disabilities, speech or other language problems, and developmental delays.
Compared to divorce, parental incarceration is more strongly associated with both ADD/ADHD and behavioral problems in children, according to the study. And when compared to the death of a parent, parental incarceration is more strongly associated with ADD/ADHD.
“We know that poor people and racial minorities are incarcerated at higher rates than the rest of the population, and incarceration adversely affects the health and development of children who are already experiencing significant challenges,” said study author Dr. Kristin Turney, an assistant professor of sociology at UC Irvine.
“The results suggest that children’s health disadvantages are an overlooked and unintended consequence of mass incarceration. In addition, given its unequal distribution across the population, incarceration may have implications for racial and social class inequalities in children’s health.”
For her study, Turney used data from the 2011-2012 National Survey of Children’s Health, a population-based and representative sample of kids up to 17 years old.
She noted that about 2.6 million U.S. children have a parent in state prison, federal prison, or jail at any given time. The problem is so prevalent, she added, that “Sesame Street” recently introduced a Muppet named Alex, whose dad is in jail, as a way to address the stigma associated with having an imprisoned parent.
“The likelihood of having an incarcerated parent is especially high in certain groups,” she continued.
“Among black children with fathers without a high school diploma, about 50 percent will experience parental incarceration by age 14, compared with seven percent of white children with similarly educated fathers,” Turney said.
“These findings have important implications for health professionals,” she continued. “Physicians serving poor communities where incarceration is common may consider screening children for parental incarceration, as it is a risk factor that, in some cases, is more consequential than other forms of parental absence like divorce.”
Turney presented the study at the 109th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association. It also will appear in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.