How does visitation impact child-parent relationship quality and psychological outcomes of youths with incarcerated parents?

Kremer, K. P., Christensen, K. M., Stump, K. N., Stelter, R. L., Kupersmidt, J. B., & Rhodes, J. E. (2021). The role of visitation and parent-child relationship quality in promoting positive outcomes for children of incarcerated parents. Child & Family Social Work.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Over five million youths have had an incarcerated parent at some point in their childhood.
  • Visitation can serve as a protective factor against risk factors that are commonly associated with parental incarceration.
  • This study explores how in-person parental visitation impacts the psychological outcomes of children with incarcerated parents.
  • Youths who visit their incarcerated parent one to six times per year have a higher-quality relationship with their parent at six months compared to youths who never visit their incarcerated parents.
  • Youths’ relationship quality with their incarcerated parent(s) at 6 months also correlated with youths’ depression/loneliness and sense of life purpose.
  • Youths who live 20-50 miles away from their incarcerated parent are less optimistic about the future than youths who live within 20 miles of their incarcerated parent.
  • While current visitation policies and sentencing procedures need to be reformed, steps also need to be taken to address the ongoing issue of mass incarceration and systemic racism.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

In the current study, we sought to determine the effects of parent visits on a range of psychological outcomes among children of incarcerated parents. Drawing on data from the Mentoring Children of Incarcerated Parents Enhancement Demonstration Project, a recent, large-scale evaluation of mentoring programme practices, we hypothesized that ongoing contact would lead to an improved parent–child relationship which, in turn, would promote a range of psychosocial outcomes in children. Results of a structural equation model (n = 228) revealed a significant positive association between child’s frequency of visits with their incarcerated parent and child–parent relationship quality, which in turn, was significantly associated with the child’s life purpose and depression/loneliness. Findings from the current study shed light on the importance of children’s visits with their incarcerated parent for later psychological outcomes.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

Research suggests children of incarcerated parents are at risk for negative outcomes (Geller et al., 2009; Murray et al., 2012). However, certain factors regarding the context of incarceration may mitigate these outcomes and promote positive development. Thus, the current study examined the role of visiting and parent–child relationship using data from the largest study to date of this historically understudied population.

Two critical findings emerged from analyses. First, results revealed that children who visited their incarcerated parent one to six times per year had significantly higher quality relationships with their incarcerated parents at 6 months compared with children who never visited their parents. Secondly, we found children’s relationship quality with their incarcerated parents at 6 months was significantly associated with children’s life purpose and depression/loneliness at 12 months.

Although previous literature has considered the concern that children will be distressed by their parent’s incarceration and that they may lose touch with them, findings from current analyses suggest otherwise. Indeed, data suggest it is possible for children to maintain connections with their incarcerated parents through visiting. We found this effect controlling for distance between children and their incarcerated parents. Thus, it is not simply the case that children are visiting their incarcerated parents as a function of geography. Interestingly, results indicated that children’s relationship with incarcerated parents did not differ significantly between children who visited incarcerated parents monthly versus those who never visited. It may be that repeated monthly exposure to a prison setting may not support the parent–child bond, or that less frequent (but still regular) visits may hold more meaning to children or be visits for special occasions (e.g., holidays and birthdays). It may also be that children who visit less often are supplementing in-person visits with telephone calls and letters, which help to support the parent–child relationship.

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