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Fresno State Study Finds Kids Pay the Price When Parents are Behind Bars

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California Department of Corrections inmates. (AP file photo)
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Fresno State News

In 2019, Dr. Marcus Shaw published a quantitative research study that showed, on average, children of incarcerated parents receive lower grades, are less happy in school and, overall, have less educational success. While these statistics showed the result of what was happening, they did not show why.

So Shaw, an assistant professor of criminology at Fresno State, set out to gain more insight. He recently had two research studies on parental incarceration published in top academic journals including Family Relations, accredited by the National Council for Family Relations.

In an effort to expand his findings, Shaw interviewed 31 children (now adults) of an incarcerated parent, over the span of three years, about their life experiences and the long-term effects of parental incarceration. He gathered data using qualitative research methods and found intergenerational impacts of mass incarceration and parental incarceration.

“When we talk to kids, we don’t know the full impact of the incarceration on their life course,” Shaw said. “In my study, adults could now reflect on their experiences, and I could then analyze their age at the time the parents were incarcerated and the impact it had on them.”

In one study, he wrote about three recurring themes affecting children of incarcerated parents: financial and emotional strain, residential instability, and the transference of stigma.

Child Judged for Parent’s Incarceration

For Shaw, the most shocking theme was transference of stigma — a child judged for the parent’s incarceration. He found that this affected the individual’s relationships and people viewed them differently. In some extreme cases, these individuals were denied criminal justice employment because of their parent’s record.

“This was shocking because some of these children of incarcerated parents worked so hard to stay away from criminality and to be successful, but, in the end, they still had to answer for someone else’s crime,” Shaw said.

Shaw believes the idea of the transference of stigma is going to be an advancement in literature and can affect policy.

Shaw’s other published study, “Secrecy and Googling a Parent: A Contemporary Analysis of Parental Incarceration,” analyzed secrecy, when parents or gatekeepers believe it is beneficial to lie to children about where their other parent has been. Shaw’s research found that children shrouded in secrecy often have more emotional trauma.

Truth, Not Secrecy

One participant in Shaw’s study was handed an envelope of letters at age 18. She had grown up thinking her father didn’t want her, yet he wrote to her every year. She couldn’t read the letters without breaking down.

“Many of the participants expressed the desire for truth, and I found that truth was the initial step to healing. When we are deprived of our own truth it also affects our sense of self,” Shaw said.

The study also demonstrated that children can now Google their parent’s name and find information for themselves, therefore secrecy may not be effective in today’s technologically advanced climate.

Shaw has taught courses at Fresno State on juvenile delinquency service-learning, community corrections, criminal legal process, and graduate statistics since 2017. Shaw said these studies reaffirm the importance of conducting both quantitative and qualitative research — something he emphasizes in his classes.

“This is where qualitative research comes into play. I used descriptive phenomenology (in-depth interviews) to capture the lived experiences of children of incarcerated parents from their perspective. I was then able to paint a broader picture as to why they fall behind their counterparts,” Shaw said.

Shaw’s research came about because he said he grew up in the Central Valley with more friends who went to juvenile hall and prison than those who went to college.

“When my friend’s mother was incarcerated, it had a profound effect on me. I saw (my friend’s0 life drastically impacted, and she, herself, had not committed a crime. She had to drop out of school, take care of her little brother, work multiple jobs; she was essentially forced to be an adult as a child.”

In graduate school at UC Merced, Shaw focused on intergenerational inequality and the effect of punishing one generation. It took years of work to produce this data and provide a voice to children of incarcerated parents, and Shaw said he is proud it is now getting attention.

“I have a heart for kids, I was a struggling kid myself,” Shaw said. “I want hurting and struggling people to find the support they need, and I want us all to have a sense of compassion for our neighbor.”