More than Just Incarceration: Law Enforcement Contact and Black Fathers' Familial Relationships
Deadric T. Williams and Armon R. Perry
Racial inequality in law enforcement contact persists in the United States. Black men are disproportionately arrested and stopped by the police compared to White Americans. One collateral consequence of law enforcement contact for Black men is its effect on family life. In the current study, we examined the association between law enforcement contact and Black fathers’ familial relationships. Using panel data, our results show, for fathers, both measures of law enforcement contact are associated with lower levels of relationship quality but not co-parenting. For mothers, only fathers who were previously incarcerated were associated with lower levels of relationship quality whereas both measures of law enforcement contact were associated with lower levels of co-parenting. We recommend policy efforts focusing on low-income families should also work in tandem with criminal justice policies to ensure optimum family and children’s outcomes, especially among Black fathers.
Keywords: Black fathers, Black families, law enforcement, co-parenting, racial stratification
In the United States, it is well-documented that Black men have a higher probability of experiencing law-enforcement contact than other racial and ethnic groups (Alexander 2012). For example, Black men make up about 6 percent of the general population but represent 50 percent of the incarcerated population (Mauer and King 2007). Although reasons for incarceration vary, it is after being released that many Black men experience stressors and strains that impede their civic, social, and economic opportunities due to the stigma of a criminal record (Pager 2003). Incarceration is not the only way Black men encounter law enforcement. For instance, a growing number of studies highlight that Black men are disproportionately stopped by the police while driving (Warren et al. 2006). In 2011, it was estimated that 13 percent of Black men are pulled over in a traffic stop compared to 10 percent of White men (Langton and Durose 2013). Although these percentages represent a small gap in traffic stops, Black Americans are more likely to be searched (Higgins et al. 2011) and are more likely to perceive excessive force on the part of police officers (Weitzer and Tuch 2004) than Whites. Thus, for Black men, incarceration and police stops represent multiple forms of law enforcement contact.
One collateral consequence of law enforcement contact for Black men is its effect on family life (Haskins and Lee 2016; Western and Wildeman 2009). Studies show that one in nine Black children has had a parent in prison (Murphey and Cooper 2015). The separation from intimate partners and children can be especially challenging as former inmates find ways to reintegrate and reconnect with their communities and families. For example, being previously incarcerated comes with a set of challenges that has implications for former inmates’ involvement with their children (Geller 2013; Perry and Bright 2012) and the mother-father relationship (Western and Wildeman 2009). In regards to intimate relationships, research on incarceration and family has paid much attention to divorce and marriage (Lopoo and Western 2005; Massoglia, Remster, and King 2011). Although this line of research has informed our understanding of the incarceration and family nexus, focusing on marriage and divorce may
overlook important familial processes for Black families because many incarcerated men are unmarried fathers (Pattillo, Western, and Weiman 2004). As such, focusing on the impact of incarceration on marriage and divorce may exclude the population that is over-represented in the penal system. Thus, for the current study, we are interested in the association between law enforcement contact and the familial relationship (e.g., relationship quality and co-parenting) among both married and unmarried fathers and their child’s mother. Similar to this prior study, we contend being previously incarcerated is associated with a number of challenges and stressors that may place strain on positive relationship functioning (Comfort et al. 2018; Turney 2015). To our knowledge, only one study has examined the association between incarceration and relationship quality among fathers’ incarceration using a nationally representative sample (e.g., Turney 2015). We build on Kristin Turney’s (2015) study by focusing on both incarceration and police stops, and restricting our sample to Black fathers.
Even more, whether police stops affect families is less clear. Racial inequality in police stops may influence the lack of trust in police among Black Americans (Pew Research Center 2016), especially in a time of heightened sensitivity to police shootings and killings of unarmed Black men and women. In a recent Gallup survey, one in four Black men (ages eighteen to thirty-four) states that he has been treated unfairly by police within the last month. Black men being stopped by police may generate stress and strain, which, in turn, affects relationship quality between mothers and fathers. For instance, police stops may (a) reinforce racial subordination and (b) generate frustration and helplessness (Epp, Maynard-Moody, and Haider-Markel 2014; Lerman and Weaver 2014). Given that individuals within families are inextricably linked (Cox and Paley 1997; O’Brien 2005), such frustration and agitation may not only affect fathers’ relationship quality but also spill over to affect their child's mothers’ view of the relationship. Thus, the purpose of the current study is to examine the impact of incarceration and police stops on Black fathers’ familial interactions with their child’s mother.
THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK AND PRIOR RESEARCH
Contextualizing Racial Inequality in Law Enforcement Contact
The disproportionate amount of Black men who encounter law enforcement contact does not happen within a vacuum. To understand the persistent racial gap in law enforcement contact, we use racial stratification as a conceptual framework to help contextualize race and criminality in the United States. Racial stratification suggests that (a) race is socially constructed, (b) racial groups are hierarchically structured, and (c) although racial domination and oppression shifted from overt (e.g., slavery, Jim Crow laws, etc.) to covert (e.g., colorblind racism), racial inequality persists across a number of indices of well-being, including law enforcement contact (Alexander 2012). Similar to proponents of critical race theory (Delgado and Stefancic 2017), proponents of racial stratification argue that racism is endemic to the US, and racism manifest itself through laws and policies, social practices, and discourse (e.g., Bonilla-Silva 1997; Omi and Winant 2014).
Thus, the persistent racial gap in law enforcement contact is an outcome of a racially stratified social system. The maintenance of the racialized social system is contingent upon racial ideologies. To understand racial ideologies, we rely on Ashley Doane’s (2017) definition, which sees ideologies as “collections of beliefs and understandings about race and the role of race in social interaction—ideas that are anchored in existing social (material) relations” (976). Racial ideologies work to make sense of racial inequality to either maintain (dominant groups) or challenge (subordinate groups) the racial status quo (Bonilla-Silva 2017; Doane 2017). From this perspective, the over policing of Black bodies is justified because racial ideologies imbuing the state (i.e., policies and laws) encode crime within race (Blackmon 2009; Muhammad 2011). To illustrate this, we follow Keon Gilbert and Rashawn Ray’s (2016) argument that the socio-historical origins of policing and criminalizing of Black males post-Civil War carried forward to shape contemporary policing policies. Specifically, Gilbert and Ray view Black men’s encounter with law enforcement as a continuum whereby the law enforcement tactics morphed over time, including (a) the prison industrial complex, (b) lynching, and (c) stop and frisk policies. These changing techniques reflect the fluidity of racial ideologies, and thus the maintenance of racial status quo. Given the prevalence of both incarceration and police stops for Black men, these experiences may carry over into their day-to-day lives, including their familial relationships.
LAW ENFORCEMENT CONTACT AS FAMILY AND INTERPERSONAL STRESS
Given the historical and contemporary context of policing in the United States, law enforcement contact may serve as a stressor for Black men and families (Taylor et al. 2018; Western and Wildeman 2009). To elucidate how, and in what ways, Black fathers’ encounter with law enforcement affect relationship quality and co-parenting between parents, we rely on two separate theories of stress. First, we use family stress theory to understand the link between being previously incarcerated and family outcomes. Second, to adequately capture the association between police stops and familial relationships, we draw on the stress spill over hypothesis. We rely on two disparate theories because each perspective differs in the point of emphasis. For instance, family stress suggests when individual family members face stressors, the impact reverberates throughout the entire family system, which, in turn, presents challenges for other family members (Conger, Conger, and Martin 2010; McCubbin and Patterson 1983). In regard to stress spill over, this line of reasoning suggests that interpersonal experiences with stressors in one life domain (e.g., work) can spill over to other domains (e.g., family life) (Neff and Karney 2004). For the current study, we contend that police stops may work as a type of interpersonal stressor to impact familial relationships.
Incarceration as family stress
Prior research on incarceration and family life relies on family stress theory. For example, mass incarceration has removed large numbers of men from their home communities. This can create a ripple effect that distorts the social norms of the community and can become a part of children’s socialization process (Roberts 2004). Post-release, these formerly incarcerated fathers are faced with myriad invisible punishments that are associated with their history in the criminal justice system. These include difficulty securing gainful employment, as well as disqualification from several public assistance safety net programs such as Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (Miller, Mondesir, Stater& Schwartz 2014).
While most of the extant research on formerly incarcerated fathers focuses on the implications for their children, there is an emerging literature examining the impact on the men themselves. In Fatherhood Arrested, Anne Nurse (2002) concluded that going to prison necessarily separates fathers from their children, partners, and families, making maintaining strong bonds and attachments difficult, if not impossible. In addition, men learn that emotionally disconnecting from life on the outside is functional in order to cope with the constant threat of violence inside of the prison.In a qualitative examination of incarcerated African American men, Brian Tripp (2001) found that fathers felt stress from knowing that they were not and could not provide financially for their children while they were incarcerated. They were concerned about being replaced by another man in their children’s lives. These feelings were also connected to concerns about their wife's or girlfriend’s potential infidelity.
Paternal incarceration has also been associated with negative outcomes for children and families. In a study featuring data collected from 185 fathers in a maximum security prison, Cheryl Swanson and colleagues (2013) concluded that the fathers’ incarceration served as a barrier that hurt their ability to develop or maintain positive relationships with their children. Other researchers have explored this topic, including Armon Perry and Mikia Bright (2012), who analyzed data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing study and found that the children of Black men with a history of incarceration had more severe behavioral problems than children of never-incarcerated fathers. Allison Dwyer Emory (2018) extended this work as she sought to better understand the relationship between paternal incarceration and children's behavioral problems. Through the use of structural equation modeling, she found that changes in family well-being accounted for most of the association between paternal incarceration and externalizing behavior.
Fathers’ involvement is heavily shaped by the quality of the co-parenting relationship (Fagan & Kaufman 2015). In addition to reporting lower levels of relationship quality before incarceration, mothers who had children with ever-incarcerated fathers were also less likely to marry and more likely to divorce, report lower levels of shared parenting responsibility and cooperation, and higher rates of domestic violence (Wildeman & Muller 2012; Turney 2015). Previous research has also found that fathers’ responsive parenting was negatively associated with cumulative incarceration time (Modecki & Wilson 2009). Kristin Turney and Christopher Wildeman’s (2013) explanation of the countervailing consequences of paternal incarceration revealed that among men who had been in prison, there were dramatic decreases in the engagement of these formerly resident fathers. Moreover, the relationship between the fathers’ incarceration and their parenting behaviors was largely explained by changes in the fathers’ relationships with their children’s mothers. As a result, the authors concluded fathers’ incarceration significantly increased the likelihood of mothers’ repartnering in an attempt to offset the losses of the biological fathers’ income and involvement, resulting in possible multiple partner fertility and increased family complexity. Similarly, Bruce Western and Natalie Smith (2018) found that incarceration leads to family complexity via multiple partner fertility that makes fathers’ involvement and the co-parenting relationship even more tenuous.
Despite the contributions of these studies in advancing the state of knowledge related to the fallout from men’s incarceration, still relatively little is known about the ways in which fathers’ incarceration impacts their relationships with their children’s mothers (McKay, Comfort, Grove, Bir & Lindquist 2018). To fill this gap, a recent special issue of Journal of Offender Rehabilitation was dedicated to examining the challenges facing intimate partners and co-parenting relationships including how they manage the separations and disruptions to family routines that accompany a male partner’s incarceration (Hairston 2018) using data collected in the Multisite Family Study on Incarceration, Partnering and Parenting (MFS-IP). The MFS-IP includes longitudinal data collected from close to two thousand couples in five states and focused on their experiences before, during, and after a male partners’ incarceration. The study contains both quantitative and qualitative data and includes several follow up STET data collection waves including nine, eighteen, and thirty-four months post release (Lindquist, Steffey, McKay, Comfort & Bir 2018).
The special issue includes several articles with analyses that have implications for co-parenting relationships. Tasseli McKay, Christine Lindquist, and colleagues (2018) study participants’ perceptions of family life before and during incarceration. The results revealed that for many of the men, their efforts to maintain active roles in their children’s lives were made more difficult by the fact that they had at least one minor child that they did not live with, engage with regularly, or support financially. These couples co-parenting relationships were further strained by the high cost of telephone calls and visits, partners and children being subjected to undesirable prison visitation environments, and mothers being left to serve as the sole financial provider and caregiver. In another study, McKay, Feinberg, et al (2018) revealed a decrease in the percentage of fathers coresiding with their children from 70 percent pre-incarceration to 50 percent post-incarceration. This decrease in co-residence rates was accompanied by fathers having to adjust to their new realities post-release, including negotiating access to their children with their co-parents, scheduling visitation times, and finding transportation. The authors concluded that this played out as mothers worked to either support or constrain fathers’ attempts to maintain relationships with their children.
Finally, Megan Comfort and colleagues (2018) examined couples relationships during men’s post-incarceration transition back into the community. In describing some of their experiences with reentry, the couples reported several challenges that they felt unprepared and ill-equipped to handle. These challenges included reports of a deterioration in men’s and women’s reports of relationship perceptions. This led the authors to conclude that the prison environment may have shaped the couples’ communication and interactions by making it difficult to discuss sensitive subjects, which ended up being temporarily smoothed over during the vulnerable time of incarceration. Furthermore, women often felt a sense of obligation to be care takers while their partners were in prison, but were let down when their expectations of a more traditional and reciprocal relationship post release went unmet. With these recent studies as a backdrop, we seek to build on previous research by exploring not only the relationship between paternal incarceration and parenting relationships, but more broadly, the relationship between law enforcement contact and parenting relationships among Black men, a group that is disproportionately involved with law enforcement and involved in so-called fragile families. As such, we hypothesize fathers who were previously incarcerated will report lower levels of relationship quality and co-parenting than fathers who were not previously incarcerated.
Police stops as interpersonal stress
Although a number of studies examine the association between incarceration and family life, limited attention has been given to police stops and parental relationships. This is surprising given the substantial growth in studies on racial inequality in police stops. For example, studies show Black (and Hispanic) drivers, compared to White drivers, experience a disproportionate number of police stops (Epp, Maynard-Moody, and Haider-Markel 2014), officers show less respect to Black drivers (Voigt et al 2017),
and racial bias remains a key mechanism in police stops, even in states with legal marijuana laws (Pierson et al 2017). These encounters lead to negative emotional responses such as anger and frustration (e.g., Epp, Maynard-Moody, and Haider-Markel 2014).
How might police stops affect familial relationships? To answer this question, we draw on spill over hypothesis. Family researchers suggest that individuals face a number of environmental stressors external to their familial relationships. As such, stressful events may reduce individuals’ self-regulatory resources and adaptive strategies to manage familial problems (Neff and Karney 2004). Given these cross domain associations, we posit that police stops, especially when these stops do not result in any consequence, become a unique stressor whereby Black men are reminded in their position in the racial hierarchy. This notion is in line with “driving while Black.” For the current study, we are particularly interested in what Charles Epp, Steven Maynard-Moody, and Donlad Haider-Markel (2014) refer to as investigatory stops whereby individuals encounter police stops but are not ticketed or arrested, which leads to a deep source of frustration and annoyance among those who are stopped. We hypothesize that fathers who experienced police stops will be associated with lower levels of relationship quality and co-parenting compared to fathers who did not experience a police stop.
MEDIATING MECHANISMS: ECONOMIC CONDITIONS AND MENTAL HEALTH
To the extent that law enforcement contact affects fathers’ relationship with their child’s mother, the association may operate through fathers’ adverse economic conditions and parents’ mental health. Specifically, adverse economic circumstances and parental mental health may mediate the association between law enforcement contact and familial relationships. Scholars persistently show that encounters with law enforcement—being previously incarcerated and police stops—are associated with the depletion of economic and mental health resources. These findings have important implications for parental relationships. For example, there are numerous studies that indicate that parents’ adverse economic conditions and mental health are associated with lower levels of relationship quality between partners.
To adequately engage this extensive body of research on law enforcement contact, we separate adverse economic conditions into subjective (e.g., economic hardship and unemployment) and objective (e.g., neighborhood disadvantage) indicators. In regards to subjective measures, previously incarcerated men tend to suffer from limited job prospects and economic adversity (Pager 2003; Western 2006). Objective measures of adverse economic stress tends to focus on neighborhood disadvantage. Aggressive policing tends to take place disproportionately in disadvantaged geographical locations with large African American populations (Geller et al. 2014; Sewell and Jefferson 2016; Sewell, Jefferson, and Lee 2016).
Economic conditions lower levels of relationship quality. Proponents of family stress model argue that adverse economic conditions have debilitating consequences on the quality and stability of intimate relationships (Conger et al. 2010). Economic strain limits parents’ ability to carry out their role as good parents, which generates tension and frustration between parents. Previous research gives support to the family stress model. For instance, Deadric Williams and colleagues show that economic hardship leads to higher levels of relationship distress (contemplating ending the relationship) for both mothers and fathers
(Williams and Cheadle 2016; Williams, Cheadle, and Goosby 2015). Moreover, economic conditions such as unemployment and neighborhood disadvantage have a negative impact on relationship quality (Bryant et al. 2010; Cutrona et al. 2003).
The potential impact of law enforcement contact on relationship quality may also operate through the depletion of mental health resources. For instance, previous research shows that incarceration was associated with measures of psychological well-being compared to fathers who were not incarcerated (Brown, Bell, and Patterson 2016; Turney, Wildeman, and Schnittker 2012). In addition, previous research shows that aggressive police stops are associated with a number of mental health problems (Geller et al. 2014; Sewell et al. 2016). Increasingly, scholars are beginning to frame mass incarceration and its impact on individuals and families as a public health concern, which is especially important given racial inequalities in health (for a review, see Wildeman and Wang 2017).
Parents’ mental health also has deleterious effects on relationship quality. Scholars contend that depressed parents may exhibit a number of behaviors such as irritability and impatience, offer less affection and support, and engage in more negative interactions between parents (e.g., Conger, Conger, and Martin 2010). Empirical studies show parental depression is associated with elevated levels of relationship distress (Williams and Cheadle 2016; Williams, Cheadle, and Goosby 2015) and lower levels of co-parenting (Williams 2018). Taking together, we hypothesize that adverse economic conditions and mental health will mediate the association between law enforcement contact and familial relationships.
DATA & METHODS
To address the research hypotheses, we used data from the Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study (FFCW). The FFCW is a nationally representative, longitudinal study that follows an urban birth cohort of 4,898 children and their parents (3,712 unmarried and 1,186 married births) in twenty U.S. cities with populations of 200,000 or more. The study began in 1998–2000 with 4,898 mothers and 3,830 fathers. At baseline, mothers were interviewed in person while in the hospital within forty-eight hours of giving birth. Parents were re-interviewed when the child was one, three, and five years of age. (For more information concerning the FFCW study, see Reichman et al. 2001.)
Although data were used from the baseline through the five year surveys, we pooled data from the Year-3, Year-5, and Year-9 follow-up surveys because the key independent variables (e.g., stopped by the police and previous incarceration) were both measured during those years. Our sample begins with 1,604 Black fathers at Year-3. We dropped 289 respondents (18%) because they did not participate in Year-5 follow-up survey and another 338 (21%) who did not participate in the Year-9 follow-up surveys. Another two respondents (< 1%) were deleted because the child’s father was unknown at the five- and nine-year surveys. Eight respondents were dropped due to missing data in the key independent variables. This resulted in a final sample of 967 respondents. Due to different levels of missing data in the dependent variables over time, the within person samples were as follows: For fathers, the samples include 2,729 within-person years for relationship quality and 2,667 within-person years for co-parenting;
for mothers, the samples include 2,648 within-person years for relationships and 2,599 for co-parenting.
To measure relationship quality, we used mothers’ and fathers’ reports to the following question: “In general, would you say that your relationship with him is (1) excellent, (2) very good, (3) good, (4) fair, or (5) poor?” The responses were recoded so that higher scores reflect higher levels of overall relationship quality. Co-parenting at the three-, five-, and nine-year follow of surveys (α> .70fathers; α > .84mothers) was measured using fathers’ and mothers’ reports with the following items: (a) “When (father/mother) is with (child), he/she acts like the father/mother you want for your child"; (b) “You can trust (father/mother) to take good care of (child)"; (c) “He/She respects the schedules and rules you make for (child)"; (d) “He/She supports you in the way you want to raise (child)"; and (e) “You and (father/mother) talk about problems that come up with raising (child).” Response options for each item are rarely true, sometimes true, and always true.
Law Enforcement Contact
We measured law enforcement contact using two separate items, police stops and previously incarcerated. To gauge police stops, respondents were asked, “Other than for a minor traffic violation, have you been stopped by the police, but not picked up or arrested?” Responses were (0) no and (1) yes. Father’s incarceration was gauged by asking parents the following question: “Has father ever spent any time in jail or prison?” Responses were (0) no and (1) yes. Fathers were considered previously incarcerated if either parent reported the father was incarcerated because individuals may underreport incarceration (e.g., Geller et al., 2012).
To gauge economic stress, we rely on four measures. First, economic hardship at each year was measured by mothers’ responses to eight dichotomous indicators (no = 0, yes = 1) such as “received free meals” and “had trouble paying rent or mortgage.” The measure of economic hardship was created by summing scores to each of the eight items across the survey years. Second, poverty was measured as household income-to-needs ratio was based on official U.S. poverty thresholds from the Census Bureau, adjusted by family composition and year; a ratio of 1 or less indicated that the family lived in poverty. Thus, the item ranges from (0) out-of poverty to (1) in-poverty. Third, unemployment status was measured by asking each parent the following question: “did any regular work for pay last week.” Responses were (0) yes and (1) no. Last, neighborhood disadvantage index was gauged by four items: (1) percentage of families below poverty level in 1999, (2) percentage of family households with kids <18 headed by females, (3) percentage of civilian labor force (16+) unemployed, and (4) percentage of households on public assistance. Each item was standardized and summed.
To tap into mental health, we rely on both parents’ depression. Mothers’ and fathers’ depression was measured using the Composite International Diagnostic Interview-Short Form for Major Depression (CIDI-SF). Mothers who experienced dysphoria and/or anhedonia for a two-week period most of the day or every day were asked additional questions regarding the following: (1) “losing interest,” (2) “feeling tired,” (3) “changes in weight,” (4) “trouble sleeping,” (5) “trouble concentrating,” (6) “feeling down,” and (7) “thoughts about death.” Mothers who affirmed at least one stem question and at least three of the other seven questions were considered depressed (1 = depressed, 0 = not depressed).
The control variables for the present study are organized by (a) partners’ individual characteristics, (b) couples’ characteristics, and (c) child’s characteristics. First, parents’ individuals’ characteristics include: family status, family status change between Year-3 and Year-5, mother is of another race. Mothers’ and fathers’ age was measured (in years) as continuous variables and mothers’ and fathers’ education level was measured using four categories: (1) less than high school, (2) high school or equivalent, (3) some college or tech training, and (4) college graduate or more. Religious attendance (at the one-year survey) was measured by asking parents “how often do you attend religious services?” Responses range from (1) never to (7) every day. We also included a variable to indicate whether parents lived with both parents at age 15. We include an item to reflect whether the child’s father was currently incarcerated at Year-1 (0 = no; 1 = yes). Fathers’ illicit drug use was defined as ingestion of at least one illegal drug, at least once in the year preceding interview, such as sedatives, tranquilizers, amphetamines, analgesics, inhalants, marijuana, cocaine, LSD/hallucinogens, and heroin. Responses range from (0) no drug use to (1) any
The analysis includes five items that gauge pro-family attitudes (e.g., “The important decisions in the family should be made by the man of the house,” ranging from 1 [strongly disagree] to 4 [strongly agree]); six items that tap into pro-marriage attitudes (e.g., “It is better for a couple to get married than to just live together,” ranging from 1 [strongly disagree] to 4 [strongly agree]); and, two items to gauge gender distrust (e.g., “Men/Women cannot be trusted to be faithful,” ranging from 1 [strongly disagree] to 4 [strongly agree ].
Couples’ characteristics include reported number of children in the household at the one-year follow-up and parents’ fertility history, which was gauged with two separate measures. First, a measure was created to indicate whether the focal child is a higher order birth or first birth (0 = first birth, 1 = higher order birth). Second, dummy variables indicating multi-partnered fertility (at one year follow-up) were used to capture whether mothers and fathers reported having a child with another partner—neither parent has a child by another partner (reference), father has child by another partner only, mother has child by another partner only, and both parents have a child by another partner.
Child characteristics include child’s health (mother’s report at one-year) with responses ranging from (1) poor to (5) excellent.” Child temperament was measured using six items from the Emotionality, Activity, and Sociability (EAS) Temperament Survey (Mathiesen and Tambs 1999); responses range from (1) not at all like my child to (5) very much like my child. Child’s sex (0 = girl; 1 = boy) was also included in the analyses.
For the multivariate analyses, we pooled the observations from the Year-3, -5, and -9 follow-up surveys. The pooled data were structured so that each observation for each individual was represented by a separate record. The pooled data violate ordinary least squares (OLS) regression assumption of non-independence. The random-effects models adjust for this violation by implementing a generalized least squares solution in which weights were assigned on the basis of a combination of within- and between-individual covariance (Johnson 1995). The random-effects regression equation was expressed as follows:
Yit = μt + βX + γZi + αit + εit,
where Yit represents refers to the value of the outcome variable for individual i on occasion t, μt is the intercept that varies over time, βXit is a vector of time-varying variables, γZi is a vector of time invariant variables, each αi represents differences between persons that is a random variable with a normal distribution, and εit represents within-persons error (Allison 2005).
We examine four analytical models separately for fathers and mothers. For Model 1, we analyzed the effect of both previously incarcerated and stopped by the police on familial relationships. For Model 2, we enter the measures of adverse economic conditions stressors (economic hardship, unemployment, and neighborhood disadvantage index) to the analyses. In Model 3, we enter mental health measures to the analyses, net of statistical controls. Model 4 includes the mental health measures (both parents’ depression). Each model includes a number of covariates to account for potential spurious effects. In auxiliary analyses, we executed the analyses using ordered logistic random-effects regression model to take into account the non-normal distribution of relationship quality. The findings were substantially similar to the random-effects models, which treats relationship quality as normally distributed. Thus, for ease of interpretation, we report the random-effects results.
Table 1 presents the mean, percentages, and standard deviations for the dependent, key independent variables, and the demographic characteristics for mothers and fathers in the analytical sample. Fathers’ and mothers’ relationship quality and co-parenting slightly decreased over time; however, the average levels remained relatively higher (see Table 1). For police stops, a quarter of the fathers experienced a police stop, and this was consistent over time. The percentage of fathers who were previously incarcerated increased over time from 44 percent at Year-3 to over half of the respondents (52%) by Year-9. In terms of mental health, 14 percent of fathers were depressed and 23 percent of mothers were depressed. Mothers were, on average, younger than fathers. Both fathers (39%) and mothers (41%) were more likely to have a high school diploma. More parents did not have a multi-partnered birth (48%). Table 2 shows means and standard deviations for relationship quality and co-parenting by law enforcement contact. We estimated mean differences between groups using two tailed t tests. On average, fathers who experienced police stops and who were previously incarcerated reported lower levels of relationship quality and co-parenting compared to fathers who were not stopped by police and were not previously incarcerated based on both fathers’ and mothers’ reports. Similar to the full sample, relationship quality and co-parenting slightly declined for all groups.
Table 1. Descriptive statistics for dependent, independent, and control variables, by fathers and mothers.
Table 1, continued.
Note: Control variables are weighted using city sampling weights.
Table 2. Mean and standard deviations for familial relationships by law enforcement contact.
Table 3 shows the results from the random-effects analyses across four models for fathers’ report of relationship quality (Panel A) and co-parenting (Panel B). For relationship quality (Panel A; Model 1), fathers who reported being stopped by police (β = -.13, p < .01) or being previously incarcerated (β = -.16, p < .10) reported lower levels of relationship quality compared to fathers who experienced no contact. In Model 2, we included adverse economic conditions to the analyses, net of the control variables. The association between both measures of law enforcement contact and relationship quality remained statistically significant with the inclusion of the adverse economic conditions. Among the economic variables, only economic hardship was associated with lower levels of relationship quality. Model 3 adds the mental health variables to the equation. No mental health variable was statistically associated with relationship quality. In the full model (Model 4), fathers who experienced a police stop and were previously incarcerated was related to lower levels of relationship quality.
For Panel B, we examined the association between law enforcement contact and fathers’ report of co-parenting. The results revealed that law enforcement contact and co-parenting did not yield a statistically significant association. In Model 2 (Panel B), the results showed that economic hardship was associated with lower levels of co-parenting, neighborhood disadvantage was associated with higher levels of co-parenting, which was counter to our expectations. In Model 3, only fathers’ depression was associated with lower co-parenting levels. In Model 4 (full model), economic hardship was no longer statistically significant. Neighborhood disadvantage, however, not only remained a significant correlate of co-parenting, but also the association remained positive. All in all, the results supported our hypothesis
for family stress and stress spill over as it relates to relationship quality but not for co-parenting. Moreover, our mediation hypotheses were not supported by our analyses.
Table 4 displays the results for fathers’ law enforcement contact and mothers’ report of relationship quality (Panel A) and co-parenting (Panel B). In Panel A (Model 1), the results revealed that fathers who were previously incarcerated (compared to fathers who were not previously incarcerated), mothers reported lower levels of relationship quality; however, no association emerged for police stops. In Model 2, we included the measures of economic conditions. The parameter estimate for previously incarcerated did not change, and only economic hardship emerged as statistically significant (β = -.08, p < .01). In Model 3, we enter mental health characteristics to the analyses. No association emerged between fathers’ and mothers’ depression. In Model 4, having fathers who were previously incarcerated was associated with mothers’ report of lower relationship quality levels, and economic hardship was associated with lower relationship quality levels.
In Panel B, we estimated the association between fathers’ law enforcement contact and mothers’ report of co-parenting. In Model 1, fathers who experienced police stops (β = .09, p <.001) and who were previously incarcerated (β = .17, p < .001) were associated with lower levels of co-parenting. Model 2 includes economic conditions, and only economic hardship was associated with lower levels of co-parenting. For Model 3, we entered mental health variables. Mothers’ depression was associated with
lower levels of co-parenting (β = .09, p < .05). In Model 4, fathers’ law enforcement contact remained statistically significant and negatively related to co-parenting. For the mediating variables, only economic hardship was associated with lower co-parenting levels. Overall, the findings for mothers revealed support for family stress theory but partial support for stress spill over.Similar to fathers, economic conditions and mental health did not mediate the association between law enforcement contact and familial relationships, and thus did not provide support for the research hypothesis.
Table 3. Unstandardized regression coefficients for relationship quality and co-parenting (fathers’ reports).
Table 4. Unstandardized regression coefficients for relationship quality and co-parenting (mothers’ reports).
DISCUSSION & CONCLUSION
The purpose of the present study was to understand the association between Black fathers’ law enforcement contact and their familial relationships with their child’s mother. We contribute to the burgeoning research on Black men and law enforcement contact in the following ways. First, we included two measures of law enforcement contact: police stops and previously incarcerated. Second, we used both fathers’ and mothers’ reports of familial relationships, and included two separate measures to take into account the quality of the relationship between parents, and how parents work together for the well-being of their child. Third, our analyses take into account important potential mediators (e.g., economic conditions and mental health) that have been shown to be related to both law enforcement contact and relationship outcomes. Fourth, we used racial stratification and racial ideologies as conceptual frameworks to provide a socio-historical context to understand racial inequality in law enforcement. Last, we show how law enforcement contact operate as stressors that adversely affect familial processes. Results from our study revealed new insights that both advance and challenge prior research.
First, our results support family stress theory (e.g., McCubbin and Patterson 1983), which posits that stressors can reverberate throughout the entire family by placing strain on how parents engage with one another. Our study focused on fathers who were previously incarcerated as a unique family stressor. This line of reasoning is similar to prior research on the deleterious effect of incarceration on families. Although our study provides some additional evidence on the link between incarceration and relationship quality (Turney 2015), our findings differ from Turney’s (2015) study using the same data. For example, Turney shows that previous incarceration was associated with mothers’ reports of relationship quality but not fathers. Our findings, however, show that Black fathers’ previous incarceration is associated with relationship quality for both mothers and fathers. The divergent findings may be due to our restricted sample of Black fathers. Even more, we build on these findings by showing a similar link between incarceration and co-parenting, which is in line with prior studies (e.g, McKay et al 2018). These findings are especially important because a considerable number of Black children have or had a parent incarcerated (Murphey and Cooper 2015), and parental incarceration is linked to a number of adverse child outcomes (Perry and Bright 2012). Thus, the extent to which the formerly incarcerated Black fathers and their child’s mother foster a relationship post-incarceration is vital for families and children’s well-being.
Second, our study provides some support for stress spill over. For instance, police stops was also associated with lower levels of relationship quality and co-parenting. Similar to other interpersonal stressors (i.e., work stress) on familial relationships (Neff and Karney 2004), Black fathers who are stopped by police may view this type of law enforcement contact as an interpersonal stressor that spill over to family life. Drawing from studies on racial inequality in investigatory traffic stops (Epp, Maynard-Moody, and Haider-Markel 2014), Black fathers may be reminded of their position in the racial hierarchy by challenging their citizenship rights in symbolic ways (Lerman and Weaver 2014). As such, these experiences may set off an array of negative emotions (e.g., anger, frustration, etc.) that spill over to familial relationships. From this perspective, a police stop may not only be stressful in and of itself, but may also exponentially stressful in its reflection of the historical and contemporary ways law enforcement treats Black Americans. For instance, studies indicate that Black Americans not only rely on their own experiences but also from patterns of events with law enforcement from the community more broadly (Brunson 2007). More empirical research is needed to understand how police stops affects family life for
Third, our results reveal less support for adverse economic conditions and mental health as mediators between law enforcement and measures of familial relationships. That is, adverse economic conditions and mental health did not fully account for the adverse impact of law enforcement contact on relationship outcomes. Despite this, the direct association between mental health and economic adversity on familial relationships is worth noting. For instance, fathers’ depression was associated with their own
report of co-parenting. These findings give credence to previous research on the link between parental depression and co-parenting (Williams 2018).
In addition, economic hardship was consistently associated with lower levels of relationship quality and co-parenting for both mothers and fathers. These findings support a long line of research on families’ economic adversity and relationship quality (e.g, Conger, Conger, and Martin 2010; Williams and Cheadle 2016). Although we expected all economic variables to be negatively associated with relationship quality and co-parenting, neighborhood disadvantage was positively associated with fathers’ report of relationship quality and co-parenting. Although this finding was contrary to our hypothesis, one prior study revealed similar results. For instance, C.E. Cutrona and colleagues (2003) found an unexpected positive association between neighborhood-level economic disadvantage and marital quality. We speculate that our findings may be due, in part, to the prevalence of fathers who live in disadvantage neighborhoods. As such, mothers' and fathers' interactions may reflect some level of resilience whereby parents work together for their child despite disadvantage. More research is needed to address the link between neighborhood adversity and relationship quality.
Finally, the findings revealed important divergent gender patterns in the association between law enforcement contact and familial relationships. Although we did not explicitly hypothesize gender variations, we acknowledge these differences because they may be helpful in guiding future studies. In our analyses, being stopped by police was associated with lower levels of relationship quality for fathers but not mothers. We postulate that these different gender patterns may reflect fathers’ interpersonal experiences. For instance, fathers may not feel fully supported by their child’s mother in the context of being stopped by the police, especially given the prevalence of Black men’s encounter with law enforcement. In regard to co-parenting, both measures of law enforcement contact were associated with lower co-parenting levels for mothers but not fathers. These findings may reflect how co-parenting in measured. For instance, parents are asked about their relationship with the other parent. As such, mothers may exhibit high levels of co-parenting regardless of fathers’ law enforcement contact, and mothers, on average, tend to carry out the lion’s share of parenting in families (e.g., Williams 2018).
Although our findings add to a growing body of research on law enforcement contact among Black men, we note some limitations. First, we only document fathers’ encounters with law enforcement and not mothers. This limitation is noteworthy given the increased attention to Black women and law enforcement contact. Second, our measure of police stops lack detailed information. Thus, we are unable to ascertain how these fathers were treated during the encounter with officer. Third, we do not know the reason for fathers’ previous incarceration, as the circumstances surrounding incarceration may impact fathers’ relationship with their child and their child’s mother. Last, as with many longitudinal studies, sample attrition remains an issue. Thus, for our study, the estimates may be conservative as fathers who were previously incarcerated at the earlier years were more likely to not be in the sample at subsequent years.
In conclusion, the results in the current study demonstrate law enforcement contact among Black fathers have detrimental outcomes in familial relationships with their child’s mother. Our findings indicate that, for Black fathers, familial relationships are affected by more than just incarceration as our results show that police stops have a deleterious impact on familial relationships. As such, understanding Black family life requires researchers to take a more holistic approach that takes into account (a) the social construction of race and (b) the mechanisms that reproduce racial inequality in the United States as these processes have far-reaching implications for Black men and their families. Understanding the factors that impede positive relationship functioning may prove to be valuable given that Black families report lower levels of relationship quality relative to Whites and Mexican Americans (Bulanda and Brown 2007), and supportive intimate partnerships have important implications for racial disparities in relationship dissolution (Bryant et al. 2010) and health (Koball et al. 2010). Thus, policy efforts focusing on low-income families should also work in tandem with criminal justice policies to ensure optimum children’s and family outcomes, especially among Black fathers and families.
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I would like to thank the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development through grants R01HD36916, R01HD39135, and R01HD40421, as well as a consortium of private foundations for their support of the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study.
About the Authors
Deadric T. .Williams, University of Nebraska, Lincoln
Armon R. Perry, University of Louisville