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  • “Family support, economic security, drug use, crime, and criminal justice contact shape how formerly incarcerated parents reunite with their children,” per a new study from Bruce Western. Tweet This
  • “Grandmothers, in particular, provided places for visits with children and helped maintain contact between parents and children during parents’ incarceration." Tweet This

“Bobby” is a young Puerto Rican father whose daughter was only 4 years old when he was incarcerated for selling drugs. During the two years he spent behind bars, Bobby maintained a connection with his little girl, who spent several nights a week with his mother, Isabel, and sometimes traveled with her to visit him. After his release, Bobby returned to his mother’s home to live. Although he struggled to find a stable job, he continued to see his daughter and to provide some financial support for her—largely thanks to his mother’s stable home, support, and encouragement. According to sociologist Bruce Western and Natalie Smith, co-authors of a new study on parent-child relationships after prison:

With stable housing and in frequent contact with her granddaughter, Isabel helped Bobby stay in contact with his daughter’s mother and maintain a close relationship with his daughter. Unemployment left him with little income, but his mother’s house provided a venue for his daughter’s overnight visits and an informal shared custody. 

Bobby’s story is one of three shared by Western and Smith in their report, “Formerly Incarcerated Parents and Their Children,” which was published in June in the journal Demography. It draws on findings from the Boston Reentry Study (BRS), a research project led by Dr. Western, that “records the material life conditions of formerly incarcerated parents and their children.” The BRS followed 122 men and women released from the Massachusetts prison system for one year after their release. The sample included 95 parents and their 270 children. One-quarter of the children were living with their parent prior to his or her incarceration, but only 10% were living with that parent after release. However, the vast majority (60%-70%) of former inmates reported “weekly contact” with their children after they got out of prison. Of the formerly incarcerated parents in the sample: 78% had at least one biological or social child. Of those with two or more biological children, 68% had children with at least two partners. 

One unique feature of the study is that in addition to the quantitative findings from the BRS, it also includes qualitative findings based on in-depth interviews with formerly incarcerated individuals, like Bobby. Overall, the authors report that “family support, economic security, drug use, crime, and criminal justice contact shape how formerly incarcerated parents reunite with their children.” Three factors from the study are particularly noteworthy. 

1. Stable Housing 

When it comes to parent-child relationships following a parent’s release from prison, Western and Smith show that housing stability is a major factor. One-half of the parents in the study were living in unstable housing at some point during the year following their release from prison. “Unstable housing” was defined as basically any temporary housing situation that makes it harder for children to stay with a parent, including living on the street, living in a shelter, living in transitional housing or a group rooming house, as well as “dividing time between two different residences.” 

In a multinomial regression analysis of the full sample of children, the authors found that “contact with children is only weakly related to monthly income but strongly related to housing.” Even after excluding housing from the model, they found that “income effects are mostly small and insignificant.” 

Western and Smith explain that “Having a place to stay seems more important than financial means for regular contact with children, at least in the year after prison release when incomes are very low.” Very few of the children in the study lived with their parents following their release, but those “whose parents were in continuously stable housing after prison were 50% more likely to be living with their parents than children whose parents were unstably housed.” In general, parents who had a stable place to live following their release were more likely to be in regular contact with their kids, leading the authors to conclude that “stable private housing appears to be a special type of resource for promoting parent-child connections.” 

“Having a place to stay seems more important than financial means for regular contact with children, at least in the year after prison release when incomes are very low.”

2. The Complexity and Supportiveness of Families

Family structure also has a powerful impact on parent-child relationships after prison. Formerly incarcerated parents who had children with multiple partners were less likely to be living with their children after their release. Regarding multiple partner fertility (MPF), the authors note: 

Multiple-partner fertility, biological and social parenthood, and the distinct bundle of relationships accompanying motherhood and fatherhood all index the complex structure of family relationships for parents who are sent to prison. With multiple-partner fertility, maintaining contact with children in different households depends on successfully managing relationships with several parental partners.

The study found that “each additional parental partner is associated with a 50% reduction in the odds of coresidence.” However, MPF was not associated “with reduced weekly contact for nonresident parents.” 

Additionally, the quality of the parent-child relationship after prison was affected by the level of parental involvement prior to imprisonment, as well as by the relationship between the incarcerated parent and the child's other parent. "Regular contact with children was much more likely for formerly incarcerated fathers and mothers who had a history of supporting their children, remained in contact during incarceration, and retained a good relationship with their parental partners," according to the study.

Another factor that contributed to the quality of the parent-child relationship was the support former prisoners received from other family members. In many cases, older women in the family, like Bobby’s mother, Isabel, served as a “bridge” between the parent and children.

“Grandmothers, in particular, provided places for visits with children and helped maintain contact between parents and children during parents’ incarceration,” the study notes. Isabel told the interviewers that the best thing about her son being out of prison was: 

the bond he has with his daughter. For me as a single parent, I feel good that I’ve taught Bobby that . . . His dad was really never in his life. So, to see the bond that he has with his daughter, the responsibility he feels as a father . . . It makes me feel good. I showed him that. That came from me.  

3. Drug Use and Crime

Finally, former inmates who continued using drugs and alcohol or who were involved in criminal activity in the year after release were less likely to be living with their children or to be in regular contact with them. 

Western and Smith also report from the BRS interviews that: “Housing security and family support often contended with the destabilizing effects of crime and drug addiction,” adding that “many respondents we interviewed spoke of drug addictions that threatened positive relationships with their children even after periods of sobriety.” Carla, a black mother in her 40s, is one example. Due to drug use and imprisonment, she had cycled in and out of her kids’ lives over the years and found it difficult to reconnect even after her release from prison, when she was sober and living with the children and their grandmother.

“Unstable housing, family complexity, crime, and drug use all tended to pull parents away from their children,” the authors conclude. “Staying sober and living steadily in a private household at least provided the conditions for parents and children to come together after incarceration.” But they also acknowledge the difficulties of rebuilding healthy family relationships after prison: 

Parents may share a household with their children or be in weekly contact, but the qualitative data show that family relationships can be suffused with distrust, anger, and unfamiliarity that are worn away slowly after incarceration. 

In a statement on Twitter, Dr. Western said of the study, "Our main finding was that formerly-incarcerated parents had regular contact with their children if they lived in a stable private household (often with their own mothers or grandmothers). Reentry has effects across three generations."

With over five million children in the United States experiencing the incarceration of a parent at some point in their childhood, this study adds to our understanding of the factors that influence how a parent and child reconnect following a parent’s release from prison. As I’ve written previously, strengthening the family relationships of incarcerated parents, both during imprisonment and after release, is not only important for child well-being but may also be key to helping these parents stay out of prison and rebuild their lives.

Alysse ElHage is Editor of the Institute for Family Studies blog.