Lifelong impact of parental imprisonment
Rising prison populations worldwide have led to an increasing body of research about the well-being of children of prisoners. Research to date has demonstrated that the consequences of parental imprisonment for children are significant and long lasting, often extending beyond the imprisonment period and into adulthood.
Now New Dutch research has found that children of imprisoned parents are significantly more likely to die prematurely than children of both non-criminal and criminal but non-imprisoned parents.
The study, by Steve G. A. van deWeijer, Holly S. Smallbone & Valery Bouwman, used a sample derived from the Transfive Study which contains data on individuals from five consecutive generations of Dutch families. The study started with 198 boys who were placed in a Dutch Catholic reform school between 1911 and 1914. Some boys were placed into the school because their parents could not take proper care of them, while others were placed due to concerns about their character and problem behavior. This group of 198 boys can therefore be considered as a high risk sample in terms of criminality. All the descendants of the 198 boys were traced in Dutch municipal and genealogical records. The parents of these 198 boys are labeled generation 1 (G1) because they are the oldest generation. The 198 boys are labeled G2, while their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren are labeled G3, G4, and G5, respectively. This study focused on the G3 and G4 generations where criminal record information was available and most surviving individuals had reached the age of 70; a sample of 1241 individuals.
The table below summarises the key finding: while only 3.2% of those with non-criminal parents died prematurely, 4% of those with criminal parents but who were not imprisoned suffered an early death, with this figure increase significantly to 6.9% to those whose parent(s) was imprisoned during their youth.
The researchers undertook a range of analyses to ascertain if other variables were connected to premature mortality, but found only one (the number of children in a family) with any relationship. An individual’s own (as opposed to parental) offending was not linked to an early death.
These findings implicate that the mortality risk is not the consequence of the parental criminal behavior but is specifically related to the incarceration of the parent. Further research is required to examine the mechanisms at play for the increased risk of premature mortality for children of prisoners.
Overall, this study highlights important implications for the risks of children of prisoners that should be considered. The researchers argue, in particular, that more attention needs to be given to assess for possible physical or mental health problems among these children.
Moreover, the criminal justice system should take into account the adverse effects of imprisonment for children when sentencing parents. These children are a vulnerable group and early intervention is critical to prevent negative outcomes throughout development.
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