Study depicts peril, hope for children of jailed mothers

University Communications

For a young child whose mother is imprisoned, life’s prospects are predictably grim.

But a new study, the first empirical examination of the attachment relationships of young children whose mothers are in prison, suggests that simple interventions may prevent a downward social spiral for a rapidly growing and vulnerable population.

The critical finding of the study, published in the current issue (May/June 2005) of the journal Child Development, is that children placed in a stable home environment fare far better than those bounced from one home to another.

Children placed in a single, secure setting are “much better off” than those who are not in a stable caregiving situation, says study author Julie Poehlmann, a UW-Madison professor of human development and family studies and a researcher at the Waisman Center. “Almost one-third of the kids in this study are doing well in their relationships.”

The study examined a sample of 54 children between two and eight years of age whose mothers were incarcerated in minimum and medium security state prisons in Wisconsin. Many of the women were drug offenders and, by and large, fit a national profile of female offenders. The families of the women and children, according to Poehlmann, also fit a national profile, with many of the children cared for by grandparents.

“This population is increasing exponentially,” Poehlmann notes, “but the study shows that there are things that we can do, that these children are not doomed to negative outcomes. They are not hopeless.”

Poehlmann says efforts to promote stability in caregiving situations for young children and the families of incarcerated mothers, especially in the initial period following mothers’ imprisonment, may go far in improving their life prospects and avoiding family dissolution and distress.

Children who fared poorly were those unable to settle into a stable home life with relatives or foster families. They often exhibited detachment, intense ambivalence, violence and disorganization in the way they felt and thought about relationships. All of these behaviors are hallmarks of insecurity, Poehlmann explains.

“Kids who reacted with anger (to separation from the mother) were more likely to have negative relationships. Those are feelings that kids and caregivers don’t always understand,” says Poehlmann.

Many of the children experience eating and sleeping problems, and some exhibit developmental regression, according to the results of the three-year National Institutes of Health-funded study.

“These are really young kids, and many of them are very confused. Their families recognize this and they try different strategies to help them cope.”

Explaining a mother’s absence is difficult. Some tell the child their mother is away at school or college, some say nothing, and others are more straightforward, telling very young children that “mom is having a big time out.”

Families that gave children simple, honest answers tended to have better outcomes, Poehlmann says. Still, confusion among children is common and intense feelings of sadness prevail. But children whose emotions were more sad than angry tended to do better.

“Kids who expressed sadness were more likely to do well. Sadness sometimes elicits nurturing behavior (from caregivers).”

Poehlmann says the study is important because no similar research exists, and as the prison population in the United States continues to grow, the number of at-risk children will soar.

The study was difficult to conduct as many of the families in the study were transient and did not have phones.

Among the families, many of whose grandmothers also had criminal pasts, there were high rates of poverty, substance abuse and frequent moves.

The new research, Poehlmann stresses, has important implications for developing programs and strategies to help a vulnerable population succeed in life. “These children have so much stacked against them, but remarkably one-third of them seem to be doing well,” she says.

The study, she argues, suggests that young children and families affected by maternal incarceration may benefit from efforts to promote stability in the caregiving situation and provide emotional and behavioral support to children, particularly in the initial period following imprisonment.