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Title: TRAUMA IN THEIR TELOMERES The Impact of Paternal Incarceration on Child Health and Wellbeing
Authors: Kumar, Nankee
Advisors: Massey, Douglas
Department: Woodrow Wilson School
Certificate Program: Global Health and Health Policy Program
Class Year: 2020
Abstract: From the mid-1970s until the mid- 2010s, the incarceration rate in the United States increased dramatically. Prison populations exploded, and strict arrest, conviction, and sentencing policies and practices incarcerated millions more than ever before, primarily black and Latino men from low-income backgrounds. More than half of these men were parents to minor children. Over the last five decades, the phenomenon of mass incarceration has similarly subjected millions of children to paternal incarceration. The policies that contributed to this phenomenon, while not directed at children, now shape the experiences of more than 5 million children every day. As paternal incarceration has been shown to reduce access to high quality education and housing and contribute to poorer mental and physical health outcomes in children, it hampers generations of vulnerable children from achieving socioeconomic mobility. After documenting and discussing these trends, this thesis asks whether the experience of paternal incarceration, in addition to affecting children’s health outcomes, impacts their biology. Specifically, it investigates a potential biological mechanism through which paternal incarceration, as it causes children severe psychological stress, contributes to poorer health outcomes later in life. Qualitative research to understand why paternal incarceration might cause such trauma complements this analysis. The quantitative research shows that paternal incarceration is negatively, significantly correlated with children’s telomere length, a biomarker of stress and predictor of adult health outcomes, at age fifteen. This association is especially strong in girls at ages fifteen, and even earlier, at age nine. The relationship between the experience of paternal incarceration and telomere length did not change significantly between ages nine and fifteen. Qualitative research suggests that the trauma of paternal incarceration results from simultaneous, transformative socioeconomic and personal changes that most children endure without recourse. Acute events, such as the time of arrest, and long-term psychological consequences, such as the feeling of abandonment, cumulate to create a stress so severe, it can impact children’s biology. As criminal justice policies shape a child’s experience of incarceration, this thesis’s results oblige policy makers and criminal justice actors, at all levels of government, to revise past injurious policies and enact targeted programming to support the children of incarcerated fathers. The institution of interdepartmental committees that take responsibility for their welfare, adoption of child-friendly time of arrest and visitation protocol, and amendment of mandatory sentencing laws, can reverse the adverse effects of previous neglect. Caring for the wellbeing of these children will not just improve their health, but allow generations of children to escape vicious cycles of disadvantage, reducing pervasive disparities in health and socioeconomic status.
Type of Material: Princeton University Senior Theses
Language: en
Appears in Collections:Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, 1929-2022
Global Health and Health Policy Program, 2017-2022

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