Parental Incarceration and Child Well-Being: Implications for Urban Families


  • *Direct correspondence to Amanda Geller, Columbia University Schools of Social Work and Law, 1255 Amsterdam Ave., MC4600, New York, NY 10027 〈〉. The corresponding author will share all data and coding materials with those wishing to replicate the study. This research was funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The authors thank it for its support but acknowledge that the findings and conclusions presented in this article are those of the authors alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Foundation. The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study was supported by Grant R01HD36916 from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The contents of the article are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The authors are grateful for the constructive feedback of Susan Phillips, participants of the Fragile Families Working Group, and two anonymous referees. Ofira Schwartz-Soicher provided outstanding research assistance.


Objective. Using a population-based, longitudinal family survey (N=4,898), we identify economic, residential, and developmental risks particular to the children of incarcerated parents.

Methods. We use parental reports of incarceration history, demographic background, and a rich set of child and family outcomes, in a series of multivariate regression models.

Results. Children of incarcerated parents face more economic and residential instability than their counterparts. Sons of incarcerated fathers display more behavior problems, though other developmental differences are insignificant.

Conclusions. We find that incarceration identifies families facing severe hardship that cannot be explained by other observed family characteristics. Given the prevalence of incarceration, our findings suggest that a large population of children suffers unmet material needs, residential instability, and behavior problems. These risks may be best addressed by using the point of incarceration as an opportunity for intervention and the administration of age-appropriate social services.