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Sibling contact with criminal legal system is harmful to children and families, study finds

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Criminal legal system contact has emerged as a key event for understanding family life, childhood well-being, and patterns of inequality. Scholars have found many problems for families that are linked to mass criminalization and effects tend to be concentrated among the most marginalized segments of society. But few studies have considered the consequences of sibling criminal legal system contact for families.

In a new study that unites research on mass criminalization and with broader perspectives on sibling influence, researchers have examined the relation between a sibling's criminal legal system contact and changes in the material conditions, social support, and well-being of caregivers and other children in the family. The study found that a sibling's criminal legal system contact can disrupt home life for siblings and families significantly.

Conducted by researchers at Rutgers University, Duke University, and the ROCKWOOL Foundation, the study is published in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

"Most research on familial criminal legal system contact in the United States has considered how partners' or parents' incarceration influences families," says Sara Wakefield, associate professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University's School of Criminal Justice, who led the study. "But sibling incarceration is the most common form of familial incarceration in this country, affecting more than 25% of Americans," she adds.

To address the gap, researchers used data from the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods, which began in 1994 and tracked 6,000 children and their families. The study estimated hierarchical linear models to consider the relation between sibling criminal legal system contact and three core indicators of familial and child well-being: familial social support, financial and material insecurity, and children's well-being, as indicated by behavioral and using validated scales.

About 7% of children in the study (9% of Black children, 6.2% of Hispanic children, 4.4% of white children) had a sibling with contact with the criminal legal system. Children and families with siblings with criminal legal system contact were markedly worse off than those with no sibling criminal legal system contact. In particular, children had higher levels of behavioral issues, parents reported more financial and material hardship, and both children and parents had lower levels of social support.

Because these patterns may simply reflect selection bias—the notion that already-disadvantaged families and children are more likely to also experience sibling criminal legal system contact, and that this pre-existing disadvantage drives these differences—researchers assessed the baseline relations more rigorously. They found a deterioration in children's behavioral and mental health issues as a result of sibling criminal legal system contact, which seemed to be driven primarily by externalizing behavior issues like aggression and delinquency.

In terms of household and family-level consequences, the study found that sibling criminal legal system contact was associated with steep increases in material hardship for families but not in . Sibling criminal legal system contact may be less likely to involve lost wages or declines in household earnings (i.e., financial hardship) and more likely to involve subtle strains on family time and financial budgets (i.e., material hardship).

In addition, sibling criminal legal system contact appears to have had a sizable association with both children's and primary caregivers' perceptions of changes in social support, which declined. This may reflect the degree to which criminal legal system contact is associated with stigma, loss of network contacts, or capacity.

"Much as with criminal legal system contact for other family members, most youth with a sibling in the criminal legal system will not become enmeshed in it themselves—but such an experience leaves few children or families unchanged," notes Christopher Wildeman, professor of sociology and at Duke University and research professor at the ROCKWOOL Foundation in Copenhagen, who co-authored the study.

"Our findings suggest that a sibling's criminal legal system contact can disrupt for siblings and families alike, highlighting yet another way that mass criminalization may imperil families and children," he continues.

Among the study's limitations, the authors note that because they were unable to prospectively observe sibling criminal legal system contact, their measures may be subject to response biases. In addition, their data provide limited insights into the mechanisms underlying the results.

"A sibling's criminal legal system contact shares much in common with parental or partner incarceration insofar as the pains of justice system involvement are transferred to other members of the family," notes Garrett Baker, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology and public policy at Duke University, who coauthored the study. "But there are also differences in this form of family contact with the criminal legal system, and they warrant further study to gain a deeper understanding of this significant issue."

More information: Sara Wakefield et al, The consequences of sibling criminal legal system contact for family life, Journal of Marriage and Family (2024). DOI: 10.1111/jomf.12989

Journal information: Journal of Marriage and Family

Provided by Crime and Justice Research Alliance

Citation: Sibling contact with criminal legal system is harmful to children and families, study finds (2024, April 22) retrieved 27 May 2024 from https://phys.org/news/2024-04-sibling-contact-criminal-legal-children.html
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