Chris Wildeman Awarded Grant to Investigate Impacts of Parental Incarceration on Children’s Health and Wellbeing

DUPRI's Chris Wildeman, along with collaborators Sarah Font (Pennsylvania State University), Yo Jackson (Pennsylvania State University), Lonnie Berger (University of Wisconsin), and Kristin Turney (University of California, Irvine), has been awarded an NIH grant to study "Implications of Parental Incarceration for Child Health and Wellbeing".

The proposed project will investigate the impacts of maternal and paternal incarceration on children’s health and wellbeing from birth to young adulthood. The most rigorous studies to date have not yielded a consensus on the magnitude, consistency, or even direction of parental incarceration’s causal effects, particularly for children in high-risk environments. Prior research on the effects of experiencing parental incarceration is limited by truncated observation periods, sample attrition, self-report measures of incarceration and child wellbeing, and lack of data on criminal charges or the context of incarceration itself. In contrast, the proposed study will construct two statewide birth cohorts (children born 2000-2002 and 2009-2011, totaling approximately 400,000 children), allowing for assessment of health and development at all stages of childhood and into early adulthood. Developmental domains include physical and mental health, cognitive/educational outcomes, and (in adolescence and early adulthood) pregnancy and parenthood, criminal activity, educational attainment, and employment/earnings.

In Aim 1, we estimate impacts of maternal and paternal incarceration on children’s health and well-being from birth through early adulthood. We will compare children exposed to parental incarceration to the general population and to children in various counterfactual conditions (e.g., children whose parents are involved with the criminal justice system but not incarcerated). We account for observable factors that correlate with both parental incarceration and child wellbeing. We also leverage approaches for isolating causal effects (e.g., within-person estimation, instrumental variables). In Aim 2, we investigate the contributions of maternal and paternal incarceration to disparities in health and wellbeing for Black, white and Hispanic children, with attention to the differences in social and economic opportunities and treatment within the criminal justice system that underlie disparities in exposure to parental incarceration. Lastly, in Aim 3, we assess—overall and by race/ethnicity—the role of children’s social environments prior to maternal or paternal incarceration, and changes to their environments during and subsequent to parental incarceration, in explaining how and for whom parental incarceration may impact child health and wellbeing. We consider aspects of the social environment to include living arrangements (e.g., with a parent, with relatives, in foster care) before, during, and after parental incarceration, as well as the economic resources and caregiver characteristics within these environments.