Prison isn't just bad for the emotional and physical health of inmates. It's bad for their children, a University of California-Irvine study says.
The study, presented at the 109th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association and to be published in the September Journal of Health and Social Behavior, found that significant health problems and behavioral issues were associated with the children of incarcerated parents, and that parental incarceration may be more harmful to children's health than divorce or death of a parent.
"These kids are saddled with disadvantages," said Kristin Turney, the author of the study and an assistant professor of sociology at UC-Irvine. "They're not only dealing with parental incarceration, but also mental health issues. It might make finding a job more difficult, or they may be forced to grow up faster than peers."
Compared to children of similar demographic, socioeconomic and familial characteristics, the study found that having a parent in prison was associated with children's behavioral problems and conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning disabilities, speech or language problems and developmental delays.
These conditions may be brought on by mental or economic stress from the parent being incarcerated, Turney said. No conclusions were drawn in the study, but Turney said it may be a focus of future research.
Glen Elliott, a medical director and chief psychiatrist at the Children's Health Council, disagreed with the conclusions, stating that behavioral conditions and diseases such as ADHD are generally inherited rather than being caused by environmental factors.
"You can't assume that these are causal relationships," Elliott said. "There may be more mediating factors."
The study did note that minorities and low-income families tend to have higher levels of incarcerated parents. Among black children with fathers without a high school diploma, about 50% will experience parental incarceration by age 14, compared to 7% of white children, Turney said. The study accounted for these factors, Turney said, but they play a large role in the health of children in these groups.
"The poor, really, are disproportionately exposed to poor childhood health," Turney said.
The study used data from the 2011-2012 National Survey of Children's Health, which is a population-based and representative sample of children between ages 0 and 17.
Susan Brown, a professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University, noted that the study gave "compelling evidence as to (what happens with) a stressful life event. A lot of research has been done on how divorce and death affect children, but not much has been done on parental incarceration and children's health.
"I think that it raises a number of important issues when we think about how children are faring and what the collateral consequences are of mass incarceration," Brown said.