By Lisa Rapaport
Children who have a parent in prison may be more than twice as likely as other kids to have depression, attention problems and conduct disorders by the time they reach adolescence, a U.S. study suggests.
They're also more likely to drop out of high school. And more likely to wind up in jail, use illegal drugs, suffer from anxiety and experience social isolation when they're adults.
"Our high levels of incarceration in the U.S. - particularly in the past 30 years - will have consequences for generations to come as children of incarcerated parents grow up," said William Copeland, senior author of the study and director of research in the Vermont Center for Children, Youth, and Families at the University of Vermont College of Medicine in Burlington.
"To address one problem, we have created others and we need to be honest with ourselves about these costs," Copeland said by email.
As of 2016, an estimated 8% of U.S. children younger than 18 had experienced the incarceration of at least one parent, and rates were substantially higher for low-income kids and non-white children, researchers note in JAMA Network Open, September 4.
Roughly one in four kids with an incarcerated parent had both parents incarcerated, the study also found.
The researchers interviewed 1,420 kids aged 9 to 16 and their parents up to eight times from 1993 to 2000. Researchers followed up with 1,334 young participants from 1999 to 2015 when they were 19, 21, 25 and 30 years old.
All of the participants were part of the Great Rocky Mountains Study and lived mostly in rural North Carolina.
By age 16, 24% of the kids had a parental figure who had been incarcerated.
At this point in their lives, teens were 2.5 times more likely to have depression or conduct disorders and 2.3 times more likely to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) if they had an incarcerated parent.
By young adulthood, kids with incarcerated parents were 4.4 times less likely to have high school degrees. And they were 6.6 times more likely to use illegal drugs, 3.4 times more likely to have been charged with a felony and 2.8 times more likely to be incarcerated themselves.
Young adults who grew up with incarcerated parents were also 2.2 times more likely to be socially isolated and 70% more likely to suffer from anxiety or to have had a baby at a young age.
Researchers accounted for a wide variety of other factors that could influence childhood and adult outcomes, including poverty, maltreatment and psychiatric disorders, and the impact of parental incarceration remained.
However, the study wasn't designed to determine whether or how parental incarceration might directly cause lasting social, emotional or behavioral problems for children. It's also possible that results from rural North Carolina might not reflect what would happen elsewhere in the country.
Many things may contribute to negative outcomes for kids of incarcerated parents, including the strain of family separations, economic hardship from lost income, and the stigma of growing up with a parent in prison, the study team writes.
"This is a relatively common experience that has devastating effects that last well into adulthood," Copeland said.
JAMA Netw Open 2019.
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