The long arm of maternal incarceration

Gómez, A. Mersky, J. P., Plummer Lee, C., Zhang, L., Shlafer, R. J., & Jackson, D. B. (2023). The long arm of maternal incarceration: Indirect associations with children’s social-emotional development. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal. Advance online publication.

A growing body of research reveals a connection between maternal incarceration and various child development outcomes. Even so, little is known about how the timing of maternal incarceration may shape the social–emotional development of young children and the role of maternal mental health in mediating this association. Using a sample of 1097 mothers (18–52 years old, 47.6% white) and children (aged 12–48 months) receiving home visiting services in Wisconsin, this study examined the intergenerational effect of incarceration before a child’s birth on child social–emotional development, and whether this association was mediated by maternal mental health. While incarceration prior to a child’s birth was not directly associated with child social–emotional outcomes, path analysis revealed an indirect association between mother’s incarceration prior to a child’s birth and child social–emotional problems through maternal mental health problems. Findings suggest that formerly incarcerated mothers may experience long-lasting mental health concerns that can undermine child social–emotional development. To optimize outcomes, practitioners may consider services that address the mental health, social support, and instrumental needs of mothers and children who have been impacted by mass incarceration.

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