The Longitudinal Associations Between Paternal Incarceration and Family Well-Being: Implications for Ethnic/Racial Disparities in Health.

Publication Year


Journal Article

OBJECTIVE: Ethnic/racial minority children in the United States are more likely to experience father loss to incarceration than White children, and limited research has examined the health implications of these ethnic/racial disparities. Telomere length is a biomarker of chronic stress that is predictive of adverse health outcomes. This study examined whether paternal incarceration predicted telomere length shortening among offspring from childhood to adolescence, whether maternal depression mediated the link, and whether ethnicity/race moderated results.

METHOD: Research participants included 2,395 families in the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing study, a national and longitudinal cohort study of primarily low-income families from 20 large cities in the United States. Key constructs were measured when children were on average ages 9 (2007-2010) and 15 (2014-2017).

RESULTS: Children who experienced paternal incarceration exhibited shorter telomere lengths between ages 9 and 15, and changes in maternal depression mediated this finding. Specifically, mothers who experienced a partner's incarceration were more likely to have depression between children's ages 9 and 15. In turn, increases in maternal depression between children's ages 9 and 15 predicted more accelerated telomere length shortening among children during this period. Paternal incarceration was more prevalent and frequent for ethnic/racial minority youth than for White youth.

CONCLUSION: Paternal incarceration is associated with a biomarker of chronic stress among children in low-income families. Rates of paternal incarceration were more prevalent and frequent among Black American and multiethnic/multiracial families than among White Americans. As a result, the mass incarceration crisis of the criminal justice system is likely shaping intergenerational ethnic/racial health disparities.

J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry
Date Published
2022 Mar
ISSN Number
Alternate Journal
J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry