Young adults who had a parent incarcerated during their childhood are more likely to skip needed healthcare, smoke cigarettes, engage in risky sexual behaviors and abuse alcohol and drugs, according to a new study published in the journal Pediatrics.
The findings show that young adults (aged 24-32) whose mothers — as opposed to fathers — had been incarcerated during their childhood were twice as likely to go to the emergency department for medical care rather than to a primary care clinic.
Those whose mothers had been incarcerated were also twice as likely to have sex in exchange for money, while those whose fathers had been incarcerated were 2.5 times more likely to use intravenous drugs.
“The United States has the highest incarceration rates in the world. With the climbing number of parents, especially mothers, who are incarcerated, our study calls attention to the invisible victims — their children,” said lead author Nia Heard-Garris, M.D., M.Sc., a pediatrician at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and Instructor of Pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
“We shed light on how much the incarceration of a mother versus father influences the health behaviors of children into adulthood.”
The research team looked at national survey data of more than 13,000 young adults (ages 24-32), and found that 10 percent have had a parent incarcerated during their childhood. Participants were on average 10 years old the first time their parent was incarcerated.
Young black adults had a much higher prevalence of parental incarceration. While black participants represented less than 15 percent of the young adults surveyed, they accounted for roughly 34 percent of those with history of an incarcerated mother and 23 percent with history of an incarcerated father.
“This data points out that children are the invisible victims of mass incarceration, and our country has not thought about the indirect costs,” said co-author Dr. Tyler Winkelman from University of Minnesota Medical School. “This study is another step in understanding the impact of our criminal justice systems.”
Prior studies have shown that people with a history of parental incarceration have greater rates of asthma, HIV/AIDS, learning delays, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It’s possible that because these young adults are more likely to forgo medical care and engage in unhealthy behaviors, they are at higher risk to develop these physical and mental health conditions,” Heard-Garris said.
“By pinpointing the specific health-harming behaviors that these young adults demonstrate, this study may be a stepping stone towards seeking more precise ways to mitigate the health risks these young adults face. Hopefully, future studies will teach us how to prevent, screen for, and target negative health behaviors prior to adulthood.”
The researchers emphasize that more research will be necessary to identify specific barriers to healthcare, targeting this population’s under-utilization of care.
“When we see results like this, our tendency is to want to immediately jump to action to remedy the impacts,” said Winkelman. “But before implementing interventions, we need to understand the unintended consequences to acting without careful thought.”
The study findings have a broad impact, as more than 5 million children in the United States have had a parent in jail or prison.