WASHINGTON, DC, December 11, 2013 — A prison sentence may not always have negative consequences for children of the incarcerated, says University of California, Irvine sociologist Kristin Turney. In a new study, she finds that when an uninvolved dad spends time behind bars, there are no negative effects on his parenting.
"To date, most research shows that incarceration has detrimental effects on family life," she says. "But we find that there is considerable variation in these effects."
Turney and co-author Christopher Wildeman, Yale University, analyzed data from the Fragile Families & Child Wellbeing Study, a longitudinal study conducted from 1998 to 2000 involving nearly 5,000 mostly unmarried parents of children born in urban areas, many of whom are economically disadvantaged. Over the course of the survey, almost half of the dads spent time in prison or jail.
The researchers found negative and pronounced effects of incarceration on fathers' engagement with children and co-parenting with children's mothers, but only when fathers were living with their children prior to incarceration. When fathers weren't living with their children prior to their stint behind bars, their incarceration had no effect on how they interacted with their children during or after release.
The findings, published this month in the American Sociological Review, go against popular beliefs that incarceration is uniformly bad for individuals and families.
"When mom or dad goes to prison, the whole family can suffer," she says. "But these negative effects—at least on fathers' parenting—only exist when fathers are living with children prior to incarceration. Those are the fathers who are likely to be involved with their children in the first place."
They also found that mothers are likely to move on to new partners in the face of a biological fathers' incarceration, potentially offsetting some losses in the involvement of the biological father.
The findings have implications for policymakers, says Turney.
"Policymakers need to be attentive to the fact that incarceration affects different individuals in the family in complex—and often countervailing—ways," she says. "Policy should aim to find ways to keep families connected during incarceration, and also address challenges that occur upon release."
About the American Sociological Association and the American Sociological Review
The American Sociological Association, founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society. The American Sociological Review is the ASA's flagship journal.
About the University of California, Irvine
Located in coastal Orange County, near a thriving high-tech hub in one of the nation's safest cities, UC Irvine was founded in 1965. One of only 62 members of the Association of American Universities, it's ranked first among U.S. universities under 50 years old by the London-based Times Higher Education.The campus has produced three Nobel laureates and is known for its academic achievement, premier research, innovation and anteater mascot. Led by Chancellor Michael Drake since 2005, UC Irvine has more than 28,000 students and offers 192 degree programs. It's Orange County's second-largest employer, contributing $4.3 billion annually to the local economy.
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