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We examine the relationship between fathers’ entry into and exit from prison, and their children’s child welfare involvement, using new merged administrative data that include detailed information on the timing of events.
Between 1991 and 2007, parental incarceration increased by an estimated 79 percent in the United States. By 2007, an estimated 1.7 million children had a parent in prison. Although mother’s incarceration has increased at a higher rate, the vast majority of incarcerated parents are men. These fathers are typically between 25 to 34 years of age, are more likely to be African American, and have children under the age of 10. The significant increase and prevalence of parental incarceration highlights several policy issues. One set of concerns that has received great attention from scholars and policymakers alike relates to the consequences of parental incarceration for children’s wellbeing. However, the lack of longitudinal data that accounts for both incarceration history and children’s outcomes, have limited this line of research to the analysis of parents with any incarceration history. As a result, less is known about the process of family reunification, and the association between timing of parent’s entry into and release from prison and subsequent children’s wellbeing. Understanding this relationship is particularly important to improve services directed to the children of these parents.
This study examines the relationship between a father’s entry to or release from incarceration and children’s involvement with the child welfare system. We focus on child welfare involvement as an indicator of child well-being because such involvement indicates concerns regarding a given child’s safety, either due to abuse or neglect, have been raised. We use longitudinal administrative data from the State of Wisconsin including the merged records of father’s incarceration with the child welfare involvement of his children, for approximately 6,000 families from 1998 to 2010. We analyze the probability that a mother’s children are subject to an investigation or out-of-home placement before and after a father’s incarceration, and before and after a father’s release. We use both descriptive statistics and survival analyses. Preliminary results from the survival analyses suggest that there is a statistically significant decline in child welfare involvement following father’s release, though the result is sensitive to alternative specifications. This preliminary information indicates that, contrary to concerns arising from anecdotal evidence, a father’s release from prison does not appear to have a detrimental association with their children’s wellbeing as measured by their involvement in the child welfare system. This finding could have implications for policies and practices designed to promote the integration of former inmates back into their families and communities; efforts to facilitate family reunification could leverage the potential positive influence that a father’s return home may have on child wellbeing.