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Research & Data Department

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Education & Stories

Preparing Fathers for Successful Community Reentry

BY Paige Thompson | Urban Institute1


Overview of  the issues

Ninety-two percent (626,800) of the parents incarcerated in state and federal prisons are fathers, and they have approximately 1.3 million children under the age of 18 (Maruschak et al., 2021). Recent estimates indicate that more than 5 million children have experienced incarceration of a parent in prison or jail at some point in their lives (Murphey & Cooper, 2015). Based on earlier research, we also know that approximately half of incarcerated fathers lived with their children prior to incarceration (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008). However, all these numbers are likely underestimates, because there is no systematic data collection in the United States on the number of parents who are incarcerated in federal and state prisons, as well as local or county jails. Also, these statistics do not include the experience of parental incarceration over a parent’s or child’s lifetime. Most of these fathers eventually leave correctional facilities and must begin navigating the reentry process, which presents considerable relational, financial, and personal challenges for themselves and their children and families. Fathers must also navigate the stressful and time-intensive process of complying with probation and parole requirements. These challenges are compounded for many minority fathers who are disproportionately represented in prisons and whose families are often already struggling with low-income and racial inequity challenges. Moreover, since March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic intensified the experience of fathers being separated from their children due to incarceration. Many correctional institutions suspended in-person visits, placing additional strains on families and enhancing the uncertainty of the health, well-being, and safety of those incarcerated during the pandemic (Barnert, 2020). Consequently, there is a significant need for services that encourage returning fathers to rebuild and strengthen their relationships with their children and families. In this information brief, we summarize the existing literature on the impacts of incarceration on fathers and draw on the research base to identify and describe seven ways to help returning fathers overcome challenges and rebuild and strengthen relationships with their children, coparents, and spouses.


   Incarceration results in emotional and financial hardships for fathers and their partners, co-parents, spouses, and children. Experiences and pre-existing issues prior to a father’s incarceration, such as racial inequity, trauma, mental health needs, substance abuse, and intimate partner violence intensify burdens on their efforts to reestablish and sustain their familial relationships during and after incarceration.


More Time Spent, But Fewer Fathers in the Home

The changing role of fathers in the home can be measured in different ways. One approach is to look at the amount of time fathers spend caring for their children. Changing trends in time use data help illustrate the extent to which fathers who reside with their children have become more involved in their lives over time. In 1965, married fathers with children under age 18 living in their household spent an average of 2.6 hours per week caring for those children. Fathers’ time spent caring for their children rose gradually over the next two decades—to 2.7 hours per week in 1975 and 3 hours per week in 1985. From 1985 to 2000, the amount of time married fathers spent with their children more than doubled – to 6.5 hours in 2000. From 1965 to 2000, married mothers consistently logged more time than married fathers caring for their minor children, though the gap between mothers and fathers in time spent on child care narrowed significantly.


Alongside this trend toward more time spent with children is a trend toward more children living apart from their fathers. Declining marriage rates and increases in out-of-wedlock births and multi-partner fertility have given rise to complicated family structures and have increased the likelihood that fathers will not reside with all of their children.2 According to the NSFG, nearly half of all fathers (46%) now report that at least one of their children was born out of wedlock, and 31% report that all of their children were born out of wedlock. In addition, some 17% of men with biological children have fathered those children with more than one woman.3


Are You a Good Father?

A father’s presence or absence in the home is closely related to how he evaluates the job he is doing as a parent. Among fathers who live with their children at least part of the time, nearly nine-in-ten say they are doing a very good (44%) or good (44%) job as fathers to those children. An additional 11% classify themselves as okay fathers, and less than 1% say they are doing a bad or not very good job as a father.


Fathers who do not live with their children rate themselves much more negatively. Only 19% say they are doing a very good job as fathers to the children they live apart from, and 30% say they are doing a good job. One-in-four say they are doing an okay job, while nearly as many describe their parenting as not very good (13%) or bad (9%).


About the Report

This report is based mainly on Pew Research Center analysis of the 2006-08 National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG). The NSFG gathers information on family life, marriage and divorce, pregnancy, infertility, and men’s and women’s health. The survey is an ongoing initiative of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Data used for this report are drawn from Cycle 7, which was a continuous survey conducted from June 2006 to June 2010. Data from 2006-08 is based on interviews with 13,495 respondents ages 15-44; 7,356 were female and 6,139 male. Unless otherwise noted, all findings in this report are from the NSFG.


The results of a new Pew Research Center survey complement the findings from the NSFG. The Pew Research survey was conducted by landline and cellular telephone May 26-29 and June 2-5, 2011, among a nationally representative sample of 2,006 adults living in the continental United States.

The charts for this report were prepared by Daniel Dockterman. Paul Taylor, director of the Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends project, provided editorial guidance. Wendy Wang provided valuable comments and research assistance. Daniel Dockterman and Wendy Wang did the number checking, and Marcia Kramer copy-edited the report.


The report is divided into three sections: (1) Overview; (2) Living Arrangements and Father Involvement; (3) Attitudes about Fatherhood. A detailed methodology and topline can be found in the appendices.


Notes on Terminology

The definition of “father” varies from question to question in the report, in order to reflect the wording and structure of the NSFG.


  • For questions regarding marital status at birth, and whether a father is living with the mother of all of his biological children: “Fathers” are limited to men who have biological children.


  • For questions regarding co-residence and time spent with children: “Fathers” refer to men with children 18 or younger. For co-residers, “fathers” include men with biological children, adopted children, stepchildren, or those who are living with their partner’s children. For non-co-residers, “fathers” are based on men with biological or adopted children only.


  • For NSFG attitude questions and questions regarding childlessness, “father” includes any man with biological or adopted children. Conversely, childless men have no biological or adopted children.


Any father who says that his child lives full time or part time in his household is considered a “co-resident” father. Any father who does not live with his biological or adopted children is a “non-co-resident” father. Part-time co-residence is self-identified by the father.


The terms “whites,” “blacks” and “African Americans” are used to refer to the non-Hispanic components of their populations. Hispanics can be of any race.


Other Key Findings

  • Men have a strong desire to be fathers… Overall, 87% of males ages 15-44 who have no children say that they want to have children at some point. Among childless men between the ages of 40-44, a narrow majority (51%) still want children.


  • …But most say you don’t need children to be happy. Men who do not have children reject the idea that people can’t be happy unless they have children. Only 8% of childless men agree with this statement, and even among fathers, only a small minority (14%) agree that children are necessary in order to be happy.


  • Most say being a father is harder today than it was a generation ago… Among all adults, 57% say it is more difficult to be a father today than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Only 9% say being a father is easier today, and 32% say it’s about the same. Among dads themselves, 63% say the job is harder now.


  • …But there is no consensus on whether today’s fathers are more involved. The public is evenly split over whether today’s fathers play a greater role or a lesser role in their children’s lives compared with dads 20 or 30 years ago. While 46% say fathers play a greater role now, 45% say they play less of a role now.

We assessed 12-month prevalence and incidence data on sexual victimization in 5 federal surveys that the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted independently from 2010 through 2012. We used these data to examine the prevailing assumption that men rarely experience sexual victimization. We concluded that federal surveys detect a high prevalence of sexual victimization among men—in many circumstances similar to the prevalence found among women. We identified factors that perpetuate misperceptions about men’s sexual victimization: reliance on traditional gender stereotypes, outdated and inconsistent definitions, and methodological sampling biases that exclude inmates. We recommend changes that move beyond regressive gender assumptions, which can harm both women and men.


The sexual victimization of women was ignored for centuries. Although it remains tolerated and entrenched in many pockets of the world, feminist analysis has gone a long way toward revolutionizing thinking about the sexual abuse of women, demonstrating that sexual victimization is rooted in gender norms1 and is worthy of social, legal, and public health intervention. We have aimed to build on this important legacy by drawing attention to male sexual victimization, an overlooked area of study. We take a fresh look at several recent findings concerning male sexual victimization, exploring explanations for the persistent misperceptions surrounding it. Feminist principles that emphasize equity, inclusion, and intersectional approaches2; the importance of understanding power relations3; and the imperative to question gender assumptions4 inform our analysis.

To explore patterns of sexual victimization and gender, we examined 5 sets of federal agency survey data on this topic (Table 1). In particular, we show that 12-month prevalence data from 2 new sets of surveys conducted, independently, by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) found widespread sexual victimization among men in the United States, with some forms of victimization roughly equal to those experienced by women.

Sexual Victimization of Men: What the Research Says

This annotated bibliography provides descriptions of recent research related to the sexual victimization of men. It provides an overview of sexual assault, harassment, and abuse experienced by diverse populations of men in a variety of settings. These publications can assist advocates, medical professionals, law enforcement officials, and other service providers in identifying men who may be vulnerable to sexual violence and addressing gaps in services for survivors. Research is limited to men who have survived sexual violence. There are gaps in the research on men of color (especially those who are Asian American, Pacific Islander, and Native American/ Alaska Native) and transgender men. More research is needed to fill these gaps.

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