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Situating the Experience of Maternal Incarceration: Childhood and Young Adult Context

Violence and Crime in the Family: Patterns, Causes, and Consequences

ISBN: 978-1-78560-263-4, eISBN: 978-1-78560-262-7

ISSN: 1530-3535

Publication date: 3 September 2015



We descriptively examined measures of family structure, socioeconomic disadvantage, and exposure to crime, violence, and substance use in young adulthood and childhood for those who experienced maternal incarceration as children.


We used data from waves I and IV of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health. We compared these individuals to two groups: those who did not experience maternal incarceration and those who experienced paternal incarceration. We generated weighted means and conducted F-tests using bivariate regressions to determine where these groups significantly differed.


We found that individuals whose mothers were incarcerated during their childhoods experienced greater hardships in both childhood and young adulthood than those whose mothers were not incarcerated. Individuals who experienced maternal incarceration reported similar levels of socioeconomic disadvantage and exposure to crime and violence as those who experienced paternal incarceration. One notable exception was family structure, where maternal incarceration was associated with significantly fewer respondents reporting living with their mother or either biological parent.

Social Implications

With the exception of family structure, the childhood and transition to adulthood were comparable for individuals experiencing any form of parental incarceration. These children were significantly more disadvantaged and exposed to more risk factors than those whose parents were never incarcerated. Additional support and resources are necessary for families who have incarcerated parents, with special outreach made to families without a biological mother in the household.

Originality/Value of Paper

There has been no overarching, descriptive study comparing child and young adult outcomes of those with an incarcerated mother using a nationally representative, longitudinal dataset in the United States.




The authors would like to thank Rachel Dunifon, Kelly Musick, Kimberly Turner, and Christopher Wildeman for feedback on earlier versions of this paper. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship under Grant No. DGE-1144153 and the Cornell Population Center. Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the 2014 meetings of the Add Health Users Conference, the American Sociological Association, and the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management. This research uses data from Add Health, a program project directed by Kathleen Mullan Harris and designed by J. Richard Udry, Peter S. Bearman, and Kathleen Mullan Harris at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and funded by grant P01-HD31921 from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, with cooperative funding from 23 other federal agencies and foundations. Special acknowledgment is due Ronald R. Rindfuss and Barbara Entwisle for assistance in the original design. Information on how to obtain the Add Health data files is available on the Add Health website ( No direct support was received from grant P01-HD31921 for this analysis.


Zhang, X. and Emory, A.D. (2015), "Situating the Experience of Maternal Incarceration: Childhood and Young Adult Context", Violence and Crime in the Family: Patterns, Causes, and Consequences (Contemporary Perspectives in Family Research, Vol. 9), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 219-254.



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