Youth at the Intersection of Parental Incarceration and Foster Care: Examining Prevalence, Disparities, and Mental Health

Luke Muentner, Katie J. Stone, Laurel Davis, Rebecca Shlafer


While there are various pathways by which children experience parental incarceration or foster care, involvement in either system is associated with adverse health outcomes. Despite co-occurring risk factors for parental incarceration and foster care, little is known about the prevalence or characteristics of youth navigating both of these experiences.


This study details the prevalence of youth at the intersection of parental incarceration and foster care, their demographic characteristics, and heterogeneity in their mental health.

Participants and setting

Data come from the 2019 Minnesota Student Survey with 112,157 eighth-, ninth-, and eleventh-grade students.


Logistic regression with interactions between parental incarceration and foster care predict associated odds of youth's anxiety and depression; self-injurious behavior, suicidal ideation and attempt; and mental health diagnoses and treatment.


Nearly 2 % of students experienced both parental incarceration and foster care, with a disproportionate number of those identifying as youth of color, experiencing poverty, and/or living in rural communities. Both parental incarceration and foster care were separately linked with poor mental health, yet experiencing both was associated with higher odds of anxiety, depression, self-injury, suicidal ideation, suicide attempt, diagnosis, and treatment. Youth with proximal multiplicative exposure (recent foster care and current parental incarceration) reported the most adverse mental health symptoms.


The study emboldens what is known about the inequitable distribution of parental incarceration and foster care. These findings highlight the association between dual-systems-impacted youth and mental health indicators, with important implications for increasing access to mental health services while simultaneously calling for systems change.

Child Abuse and Neglect - The International Journal