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A unique study that examines how Chicago Public Schools students whose mothers are behind bars perform in school paints a dire picture, yet concludes that the incarceration is not the breaking point in their academic lives.

“The end point of a lot of [other] problems is imprisonment,” says researcher Rosa Cho, an assistant professor of education at Brown University. “The damage happens before the incarceration. By the time the parent is incarcerated it might be too late.”

The study compares the school records of 3,362 children whose mothers were in prison or had a long-term jail stay between 1993 to 2001 to another group of 5,737 children whose mothers were in jail for three days or less. Cho says she chose these two groups to pinpoint whether the long-term absence of a mother in prison spells academic trouble for her children.

She found that it didn’t. Test scores for children whose parents were in prison were not much different than those of students whose parent spent a short time in jail.

Advocates who work with mothers in prison worry that Cho’s study sends the wrong message. Not only do they hear a different story from women inmates, but they also aren’t sure that the comparison by Cho is accurate.

“Jail and prison are the same to me,” says Dorenda Dixon, who oversees drug treatment programs for female inmates at Cook County Jail.

One reason Cho suspects incarceration has a limited impact is because many of the children studied didn’t live with their mothers before they were imprisoned. Based on guardianship data collected by the district, more than 30 percent of children whose mothers were in prison did not live with her immediately before the incarceration occurred, says Cho. (A caveat: Cho notes that guardianship data may be outdated because the district does not regularly update it.)

However, in cases where mothers were the primary guardian, Cho’s study found incarceration to have a slightly negative effect on children’s performance in school, though the impact was not statistically relevant.

Both groups of children studied have significantly lower test scores across all grade levels, especially in math, compared to the average CPS student. They also more likely to be poor, have behavior disabilities and a mother without a high school diploma.

Research doesn’t tell whole story

Beth Richie, a sociologist who runs the University of Illinois-Chicago’s Department of African American Studies, remembers being aghast when she heard Cho present her study a year ago. Cho’s conclusion—that parental incarceration made no difference to children’s acadmic performance—ran contrary to everything she has heard from women and read on the subject. She questions Cho’s methodology, which centers on analyzing numbers.

Rather than talking “to people over time, [Cho] just looked at numbers,” she says. Furthermore, Richie criticizes comparing children whose parents are incarcerated for long periods of time to those whose parents are locked up for short stints in jail. Both groups come from “concentrated disadvantage,” making the comparison suspect, she says.

Dixon agrees that numbers, in for form of test scores, tell only part of the story about how a parent’s incarceration affects children in school, she notes.

“Test scores have nothing to do with behaviors or what we observe,” says Dixon, who last year attended a presentation by Cho on her findings.

When inmates are screened for the program, Cook County Department of Women’s Justice Services staff ask whether they have children and where they go to school. Many of the women report that their children are struggling, and it is common to hear about children acting out, Dixon explains.

“Children sometimes feel like if my parents are no good, what does that say about me?” Dixon says. “Parents give us a sense of who we are.”

She agrees with Cho, however, that trouble for these children was brewing a lot earlier than the mom’s incarceration. Many families spend years dealing with parents’ drugs or mental illness—problems that often result in arrest and subsequent incarceration.

Cho plans to do future studies using the database that she had compiled with the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall, a child research institute. One plan is to look at the relationship between maternal incarceration and special education referral rates and high school dropout rates.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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