Kids whose dads have put in time behind bars may be at a greater risk for using marijuana and other illegal drugs, according to a new study.
The incarcerated population of the US has grown from 250,000 in the mid-1970s to about 2.25 million today. Rising alongside has been the number of kids growing up with a parent that has served jail time: now about 7.5 million.
In other words, one out of every eight young people in the US now has a father that has been incarcerated, notes lead researcher Michael E. Roettger,of University of Colorado in Boulder.
"In the context of the massive increases in incarceration in the US and growing number of children being affected, we wanted to know what issues these children would likely face," Roettger told. "It appears that drug use is one of the unintended consequences of these rising rates."
Already on the troubling list, he added, were increased risks for mental health problems, criminal behaviour, dropping out of high school, family instability and poverty.
To determine the extent of the role a father's incarceration might play in youth drug use, Roettger and his colleagues looked at data from about 150,000 young men and women followed from adolescence into early adulthood during the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a nationally representative sample beginning in 1995.
The team found that over half of young men and 39% of young women who had a father with a history of incarceration reported using marijuana, compared to 38 and 28% of young men and women whose fathers never went to jail.
This unfortunate group also used marijuana more frequently and continued using it longer into adulthood.
Further, having an imprisoned father appeared to be tied to the use of harder drugs, particularly among males, report the researchers in the journal Addiction. One out of every four young men with an incarcerated dad reported using drugs such as cocaine and crystal meth - a rate roughly double that of kids in the other group.
The results held after accounting for factors such as parents' substance abuse, family structure, economic status and prior physical abuse.
The team notes that further research is necessary before parental incarceration can actually be blamed for causing kids to use drugs. Information on the timing of the fathers' incarcerations, which is missing in this study, would be an important addition, for instance.
African American kids
Sociologist Christopher Wildeman of Yale University in Connecticut, who was not involved in the study, said: "Since only about 4% of white children can expect to have a parent go to prison at some point, if parental imprisonment increases the risk of behavioural problems, it may also have important implications for racial inequality in drug use and abuse.
"To the degree that parental imprisonment increases the risk of drug use and abuse, mass parental imprisonment may contribute to a self-sustaining cycle in which incarceration in the older generation increases the risk of drug use and imprisonment in their children," he added.
Wildeman would like to see future policies that diminish the incarceration rate for low-level crimes, suggesting that "the broad social costs of incarcerating those individuals may well outweigh the benefits."
Roettger recommends that more attention be paid to substance abuse intervention and treatment for both kids and their parents, as well as mentoring programs and parenting classes.
"They may cost several thousand dollars, but given that societal costs can be upwards of a million dollars for the lifetime of a heavy drug user," said Roettger, "it makes a lot of sense to spend the money." (Reuters Health/ October 2010)
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