Report Icon

Incarceration, Child Support, and Family Relationships

Parental incarceration is associated with numerous negative outcomes for children and in the case of fathers, can lead to relational and economic barriers in the relationships they have with their children and caregivers. In this report, we examine how incarceration among non-custodial fathers may shape their involvement with their non-resident children—both relationally and financially—and how these associations may differ for White and Black fathers. We also assess the differential impacts of incarceration’s timing and length on our outcomes of interest. These questions are relevant for child support policymakers and practitioners given the limited information available from large samples to evaluate whether fathers with histories of incarceration generally have worse relational or financial connections to their children than fathers who never experienced incarceration. We use data from the Child Support Noncustodial Parent Employment Demonstration (CSPED), drawing on information from participants in six states (N=2,409) and among participants in Wisconsin only (N=457).

We find that post-birth incarceration is related to a lower quality of a father’s relationship with his children, but not to any other parent-child relationship outcomes. However, we find a clear pattern between post-birth incarceration (and in some cases pre-birth incarceration) and all measures of financial contributions. We also find that long spells of incarceration (greater than 12 months) have negative associations with relationship quality and all measures of financial contributions, and even short spells (one year or less) are associated with substantially lower financial contributions than those without incarceration. Our analyses that examine differences by race between Black fathers and White fathers are broadly similar, as are the results for the Wisconsin-only sample with a few exceptions. Policymakers and practitioners should consider paternal incarceration history a considerable risk factor for economic and relational disadvantage for children and, in the longer-term, work to reduce parental incarceration as a strategy to increase both individual and family well-being.


Child Support, Child Support Policy Research, Family & Partnering, Incarcerated Parents, Parenting, Pass-Through & Disregard


, ,