Introduction The worldwide increase in imprisonment rates over the past several decades (Wakefield and Wildeman 2011; Walmsley 2012) has resulted in a growing number of children facing parental imprisonment (Glaze and Maruschak 2008). Children of incarcerated parents are at increased risk of internalizing and externalizing problem behavior compared to children without imprisoned parents (cf Hagen et al. 2005; Hissel et al. 2011; Murray and Farrington 2005; Murray et al. 2009). There are several explanations for this association. Maternal incarceration could harm children (Murray and Farrington 2005, 2008a) because it changes their caregiving situations (Phillips et al. 2006; Poehlmann 2005), or because of childrens’ feelings of shame, or the loss of family income, or even the breakdown of the social network (Murray et al. 2009). However, in families of incarcerated mothers, risk factors might already be present pre-incarceration (Phillips et al. 2002), which makes the relation between children’s problems behavior and their mother’s incarceration spurious (Wildeman and Turney 2014). As such, incarceration may be a marker, or indicator, of risk rather than a risk factor itself (Murray and Farrington 2005; Murray et al. 2009). More often than is the case with incarcerated fathers, incarcerated mothers were the sole caregivers for their children before the incarceration (Glaze and Maruschak 2008, Loper et al. 2009). Incarceration of a mother might therefore create greater disruption in the children’s caregiving situation than the incarceration of a father (Phillips et al. 2006; Tasca et al. 2011). Again, such caregiving instability may also precede incarceration because some children were already living apart from their mothers prior to incarceration or were exposed to new partners of the mother, to step-and half-siblings moving in and out or to frequent residential moves (Hissel et al. 2011; Myers et al. 1999; Philips et al. 2002; Ross et al. 2004; Siegel 2011). Empirical evidence on the association between maternal incarceration and caregiving instability is, however, limited. To investigate whether incarceration is a risk factor or a risk marker (Murray and Farrington 2005), this study focused on instability in the caregiving arrangement of children of incarcerated mothers. Tasca et al. (2011), who studied caregiving instability in the context of parental incarceration in the United States,
distinguished between instability due to changes in primary caregivers and instability due to residential changes. We therefore investigated the frequency and sequence of primary caregiver and residential changes for children of incarcerated mothers, and the nature and context of these changes, from the period preceding incarceration to the period of incarceration. Caregiving disruptions may have different effects in countries with different carceral and welfare regimes. In the Netherlands, the country where the current study took place, prison sentences are short on average and a generous welfare system is in place. It is important that the effects of maternal incarceration are studied not only in countries with severe imprisonment climates but also in those with milder ones because relatively short sentences and strong social welfare nets may be insufficient to offset the risks of incarceration for children.