Mitigating the effects of parental incarceration through social intervention: A social psychological perspective

Robert Craig Morris, Purdue University


There are approximately 2 million adults in jail or prison on any given day in the United States; among the incarcerated are parents of more than 1.7 million children under the age of 18. Studies find that these children are five to six times more likely to face a life filled with crime and incarceration, compared to non-impacted peers. While the intergenerational effects of crime and incarceration are known to be large little research has investigated the efficacy of social intervention for these at-risk children. This dissertation considers the effect the Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) mentoring program has on children impacted by mass parental incarceration. This dissertation addresses three research questions related to children impacted by parental incarceration in the United States. First, does exposure to an extra-familial adult role-model influence the likelihood that a child will engage in delinquent behavior? Second, are children impacted by parental incarceration more likely to be delinquent and does social intervention mitigate delinquency? Third, does mentoring impact a child's self-concept? The first empirical chapter considers whether or not a child's ability to control delinquent behavior can be altered by the socializing influence of an adult role model. This chapter is framed by the sociogenic assumptions of social intervention: exposing a child to a positive adult role model will help a child develop a normative self-concept–by developing pro-social value-identities–leading to pro-social behavior. Results indicate that a child's levels of self-control are susceptible to social influence through mentoring. This finding is encouraging to further developments in social intervention programing designed for children at-risk for intergenerational delinquency. The second empirical chapter examines the two-part assertion that 1) children impacted by parental incarceration engage more frequently in delinquent behavior and 2) social intervention programs mitigate delinquency. Results using the primary BBBS data find that children impacted by parental incarceration self-report more delinquent activity compared to non-impacted peers. To address the second assumption a quasi-experimental comparison between children from the BBBS data and a nationally representative sample of children from the Fragile Families (FF) and Child Wellbeing Study is done. Unexpectedly, when children from the BBBS data are compared to a similar group of at-risk children from the FF data the BBBS children do not report less delinquency after a year of social intervention. The use of various analytic strategies modeling procedures and dependent variables demonstrates the robustness of the findings reported. The third and final empirical chapter examines the effect mentoring has on a child's self-concept and whether or not changes in a child's self-concept translate into more or less delinquency. Results demonstrate that as the mentee identity becomes increasingly important for the child's sense of self delinquency goes down. Results also suggest that children who are impacted by parental incarceration initially invest more of their self-concept into the social intervention reporting greater commitment, importance, and salience of their new mentee identity. However, as the year of social intervention came to a close the impacted children began to psychologically minimize the importance and salience of their mentee identity, by cognitively withdrawing from this identity. On the other hand, non-impacted children experience a steady increase in their self-reported importance and salience of the mentee identity across the year of social intervention. At the one year anniversary non-impacted children have a statistically significantly higher sense of self defined by the mentee identity compared to children impacted by parental incarceration. Additional research will be needed to extend the findings reported here to a generalized population of children involved with social intervention programs. Despite the limitations of this research effort this dissertation provides a social psychological consideration of the relationship between parental incarceration, delinquent behavior, and social intervention.




Useem, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Social psychology|Criminology

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