4th September 2009
Effects of parental imprisonment on child antisocial behaviour and mental health
Joseph Murray, David P. Farrington, Ivana Sekol, Rikke F. Olsen
The number of children with parents in prison is increasing in many countries worldwide. Theory and qualitative research suggest that parental imprisonment might contribute to child antisocial behaviour and mental health problems, because of the trauma of separation, strained child-care arrangements during parental imprisonment, loss of family income, other stressful life events such as moving home and school, and the stigma of parental imprisonment.
The first aim of this review is to assess evidence on parental imprisonment as a predictor of child antisocial behaviour (including criminal behaviour) and poor mental health. The second aim is to assess evidence on the possible causal effects of parental imprisonment on these outcomes. A third aim is to investigate whether characteristics of children, parents, prisons, and wider social and penal settings might moderate the effects of parental imprisonment on children.
We searched for studies of children of prisoners by contacting experts in the field, examining the bibliographies of prior reviews, and searching electronic databases of references for the years 1960 to 2008. We searched to identify both published and unpublished literature. The searches were international in scope. Over 10,500 references were screened, 319 full text reports were retrieved, and 165 reports of studies of children of prisoners were identified.
Studies that compared children of prisoners with children whose parents were not imprisoned on antisocial or mental health outcomes were first identified as studies that might be eligible for the review. Studies were included in the review if the comparison group of children was either selected to represent the general population of children (to estimate the strength of prediction of child outcomes following parental imprisonment) or to be similar to children of prisoners on confounding variables (to estimate the causal effects of parental imprisonment on children). Sixteen studies were eligible for the review.
Data collection and analysis
The results of 16 studies are described in a narrative review and in a meta-analysis. Weighted mean effect sizes are reported for the associations between parental imprisonment and child outcomes. Moderator analyses were used to investigate possible explanations for variations in the study results.
Children of prisoners have about twice the risk of antisocial behaviour and poor mental health outcomes compared to children without imprisoned parents. All except one of the studies suggested that parental imprisonment might cause an increase in these outcomes for children (i.e., had positive effect sizes even after controlling for covariates). However, these tests of causal effects might be systematically biased because studies often did not control for prior child behaviour, parental criminality, and other important confounds associated with parental imprisonment. There were not enough studies to conduct more than exploratory analyses of moderators of the relationship between parental imprisonment and child outcomes.
We conclude that children of prisoners are at greater risk of undesirable outcomes than their peers. However, it is not known whether parental imprisonment causes an increase in risk for children or whether other disadvantage in children’s lives accounts for this association. There is increasing research interest in the possible effects of parental imprisonment on children. It is important to conduct new research that can estimate the causal effects of parental imprisonment on children more accurately, and investigate mediators and moderators of its effects.
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