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Incarcerating Fathers Leads to Increased Drug Use in Teen Children Left Behind

13% of young adults in America today grew up with a father who spent some time behind bars. It’s a pretty substantial number of people, and research out of Bowling Green State University suggests that teens growing up in such households are at an increased likelihood to use marijuana and other drugs.

In 1975, 250 000 people were incarcerated in America. By 2006, that number had jumped by a whopping 2 million to 2 250 000 and as that number behind bars rose, so too did the number of children growing up without one or more parents in the home.

Researchers at Bowling Green State University wondered what the consequences of this increase in parental incarceration might be, and to find out they took data from the 1995 National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a study which also followed up with its teen participants over the next years as they aged into young adulthood.

They found that:

  • 51% of sons and just under 40% of daughters who had fathers that served time in prison reported having smoked marijuana; compared to 38% of sons and 28% of daughters born to men who were never incarcerated that reported having smoked marijuana.
  • Having a father who had spent time in jail was also associated with using marijuana longer into adulthood and a greater incidence rate of the use of other drugs, like cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin

Lead author, Dr. Michael Roettger said that with an increased numbers of teens growing up today with a father behind bars and at increased risk for drug use, the social consequences of drug use, such as increased crime and increased treatment costs may also swing upwards. He also noted that, "Long-term drug use may exacerbate many other problems faced by disadvantaged youth, including mental health issues, delinquency, dropping out of school, domestic violence and poverty. This is of particular concern within poor and minority communities where incarcerations are disproportionately located."

The researchers are careful to note that they found only a correlative relationship between having a father that spent time in prison and increased rates of drug use. They say that other explanations, such as socio economic, educational or other factors could also explain the increased rates of drug use.

The full study results can be read in the journal, Addiction.

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