Father’s Incarceration Impacts Their Child’s Drug Use

Researchers have identified an association between the incarceration of a child’s biological father during their childhood and their future drug use as they transition into adolescence and young adulthood.

The nation’s prison population has drastically increased over the past three decades; when adults are sentenced to prison, their children are simultaneously sentenced to a childhood without a parent. In 1975, approximately 250,000 adults were behind bars; by 2006, the adult prison population rose to 2,250,000. The number of children separated from an incarcerated parent has also sharply risen during this time span: those with an incarcerated mother rose by 131%, and those with an incarcerated father rose by 77%—although the majority of state and federal prisoners who are also parents are fathers. According to the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated, more than 1.7 minor children in the U.S. had a parent in prison in 2007, and 52% of state inmates were parents. With one out of eight young adults in the U.S. reporting that they had an incarcerated parent at some point in time during their childhood, researchers from Bowling Green State University sought to determine whether parents’ incarceration puts their children at greater behavioral health risks as they age, such as substance abuse.

In the first study to examine the relationships between paternal incarceration and substance use among children, researcher Michael Roettger and colleagues measured the frequency of marijuana and other illegal substance use among thousands of adolescents as they transitioned into young adulthood, with paternal incarceration as the primary measure. The researchers gathered their data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a nationally representative adolescent population sample that polled children who were in grades 7–12 in 1995 and followed them into their young adulthood (ages 18–27 years). In total, 7,157 male and 7,997 female participants from the national study were included in the researchers’ latest study. The researchers assessed the participants’ frequency of marijuana use as well as any illicit drug use (including cocaine, crystal meth, ecstasy, hallucinogens, heroin, LSD, methamphetamine, or PCP) within the past 30 days from the time they were polled during the three-wave study.

As a result, the researchers found an association between having a father ever been incarcerated during childhood and both male and female participants’ increased frequency of marijuana use, as well as their likelihood of using any of the other illicit substances. For instance, about 51% of male participants and 40% of female participants who had a biological father incarcerated during their childhoods reported marijuana use, while only 38% of male and 28% of female participants without a history of paternal incarceration reported having used marijuana. In addition, participants who had an incarcerated father during childhood and had also used marijuana during adolescence demonstrated a heightened trajectory of marijuana use overtime that lasted well into their mid-twenties, while the other participants’ marijuana use peaked by the average age of 20. Moreover, those who had an incarcerated father during childhood exhibited greater levels of illicit substance use—including cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine—than their counterparts who did not have a history of paternal incarceration.

Although the researchers emphasize that their study was not an experimental design but rather a multi-level modeling examination, their study did show that paternal incarceration is strongly associated with both male and female adolescent substance use. Even when the researchers controlled other variables such as parental characteristics, family background, and individual characteristics, the association between paternal incarceration and substance use remained significantly apparent.

Separation from a parent during their incarceration can create lasting psychological, behavioral, and developmental adverse effects upon their child as they must cope with several personal, familial, social, and financial obstacles. The increasing incidence of incarcerated fathers has shown to create multiple consequences upon their children, families, and communities. Due to lack of adequate support, children of incarcerated parents are at much greater risk for mental health problems, developmental deficiencies, violence, academic failure, delinquency, poor health, and poverty. Sadly, these children are often bounced around between family members who are capable of supporting them, or rotated among the foster care network. Also, incarcerated parents cause loss of productivity, increased state spending on law enforcement and the justice system, increased need for substance abuse treatment programming, and overall economic loss.

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