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July/August 2009Vol. 10, No. 6Linking Data on Children and Incarcerated Mothers

Integrating data across systems can provide new insights into the needs of children in the child welfare system or at risk for involvement. In 2008, the Urban Institute supported data integration efforts at three sites to learn more about the experiences of children whose mothers were incarcerated. Each site linked different data sets, depending on what was available and suited to their analysis. A new publication, Using Local Data to Explore the Experiences and Needs of Children of Incarcerated Parents, by Diana Brazzell, reports the findings.

  • In Pittsburgh, PA, where the county maintains an integrated data warehouse, researchers linked data from bookings at the county jail, foster care cases, juvenile delinquency allegations, and mental health and substance abuse treatment records. Data analysis indicated that, for incarcerated mothers of children placed in foster care, the number of jail bookings increased steadily in the years before foster care placement, spiked in the year of placement, and continued to rise after placement, suggesting the possibility of a link between incarceration and foster care placement. In looking at outcomes for children in foster care, children whose mothers were incarcerated were more likely than other children to be assigned a placement goal of adoption.
  • In Providence, RI, researchers linked incarceration records to birth records, capturing data on children who were and were not involved with the child welfare system. Findings show that children of incarcerated mothers were more likely to face developmental challenges from birth because this group tended to be born to young, unwed mothers who had delayed prenatal care and gave birth to low-birthweight infants.
  • In Chicago, IL, where an integrated database on children's services is maintained, researchers linked data on arrests, incarcerations, foster care cases, and allegations of abuse and neglect. In contrast to the Pittsburgh findings, Chicago researchers found that there was no direct relation between foster care placement and the mother's arrest or incarceration for the majority of families. In fact, abuse or neglect was often reported well before any criminal involvement of the mother. Other statistics showed that one-third of the children of women incarcerated between 1990 and 2001 entered foster care at some point.

The author of the report discusses the potential for using administrative data to find out more about children of incarcerated parents, since child welfare and criminal justice data are not normally integrated. Key considerations should include the need to build relationships among data providers, gauge the quality of the data, determine the best method for merging data, address data limitations, and establish a proper chronology of events.

The overlap of the two populations—incarcerated mothers and children in the child welfare system—suggests that these families face multiple challenges. Using multiple data systems for further research could contribute to developing more effective prevention initiatives.

The full report is available on the Urban Institute website: (194 KB)