Few studies have examined the interplay between motherhood, social support, and substance use in incarcerated female samples. Existing research demonstrates the positive effect of social support on the ability to cope with stressful life events and recover from illness and substance use problems (Cobb, 1976; Gottlieb, 1981; Stephens, 1987; Wilcox, 1988). Given the number of life problems and strains incarcerated women with substance use problems face, the present study examines whether adequate social support is related to a decrease in daily self-reported crack/cocaine use in a sample of mothers and non-mothers who are incarcerated. The importance of social support for mothers may be even greater among those who are incarcerated, as their lives are characterized by more stressful events than incarcerated men or non-incarcerated women (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008). The present study compares the characteristics and life circumstances of mothers and non-mothers and examines the relationship between perceived social support and daily use of crack/cocaine for both groups of women.
Substance Use and Parenting among Prisoners
Illicit substance use (ISU) remains a significant problem in the United States (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2008), particularly among incarcerated adults. Female inmates represent a unique group whose reports of illicit substance use are increasing more rapidly than those of other populations. While large numbers of both male and female inmates report ISU, the number of women in federal prison who report using illicit substances in the month before incarceration (called ‘month before’ use) is growing at a faster rate than the number of men. Specifically, ‘month before’ use among female federal inmates increased by eleven percentage points between 1997 and 2004, while male inmates reported only a five percentage point increase during this time (Mumola & Karberg, 2006). Among all prison inmates, more women than men reported ISU in the month prior to incarceration – 54 percent and 50 percent, respectively (Mumola & Karberg, 2006). These data are further troubling given that 55% of female and 35% of male inmates were living with their children prior to incarceration (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008), which indicates that many of these children may have been affected by their parents’ ISU.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), the number of children with a mother in prison has more than doubled since 1997 (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008) and a staggering 61.7 percent of incarcerated females report having at least one child under the age of eighteen. Once again, the numbers for women are increasing more rapidly than those of men. Between 1991 and 2007 the number of mothers in state and federal prisons increased 122 percent versus a 76 percent increase for fathers (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008).
The typical female prisoner is economically disadvantaged, has a history of substance abuse and sexual victimization, and is a single mother who had custody of two to three children prior to incarceration (Henderson, 1998; Bloom & Steinhart, 1993; Mumola, 2000). Given the numerous roles and responsibilities women are often expected to fulfill, one would expect their substance use to cause severe disruption in many areas of their lives. Research focusing specifically on female cocaine users reveals that women suffer more severe family and social problems stemming from their cocaine use than do male users (Griffin, Weiss, Mirin, & Lange, 1989; Kosten, Gawin, Kosten, & Rounsaville, 1993). The combination of managing one’s substance use problems while providing care for minor children merits researchers’ attention, particularly because women experience a more rapid progression from use to addiction (McCance-Katz, Carroll, & Rounsaville, 1999). Mothers with substance use problems who engage in drug-related criminal activities are at significant risk for losing guardianship of their children and being arrested and incarcerated due to their substance use (Henderson, 1998; Schilling, Mares, & El-Bassel, 2004).
Among non-incarcerated men and women, having children generally serves as a protective factor against behaviors like drug use. This trend, however, has not been reported among incarcerated women. In fact, incarcerated parents report slightly higher levels of past ISU than non-parents (Mumola, 2000). The Bureau of Justice Statistics has not published a report that examines specific differences in the rate of ISU between incarcerated mothers and non-mothers; however, inferences can be made from two existing reports focusing on (1) the ISU of the general female inmate population (Mumola & Karberg, 2006), and (2) only those inmates who are mothers to minor children (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008). According to these two reports, the percentage of mothers incarcerated in state prisons who meet DSM-IV criteria for substance dependence/abuse (American Psychiatric Association, 2000) is 10 percentage points higher than that of the general female state prison population, 70.1 percent and 60.2 percent respectively. Because more non-mothers in the general population engage in ISU, it may be that, because of the concern for children, mothers who use illicit substances face the risk of being reported to child protection services and subsequently the police. Thus, while more women in the general population who engage in ISU are non-mothers, it is much more likely that mothers will be arrested and incarcerated.
While incarcerated men and women with children report relatively equal levels of drug use (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008), women are much more likely to have been living in the same home as their children prior to incarceration (55 percent vs. 35 percent of men), and three times more likely than male inmates to report living in a single-parent household (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008). Further, among the parents that lived with their kids prior to incarceration, 77 percent of incarcerated mothers said that they personally provided the majority of the daily care for their children before incarceration, while only 26 percent of fathers did (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008). Although these women and children would benefit more from comprehensive substance abuse treatment, whose effectiveness has been studied at length (Ashley, Marsden, & Brady, 2003), the rate of incarceration of mothers continues to skyrocket instead (Schirmer, Nellis, & Mauer, 2009).
Although drug abusing women are more likely than men to be dependent on a family member or on public assistance for survival (Marsh & Simpson, 1986), they are also more likely to be the primary caretakers of children. Thus, mothers are often forced to manage their own drug problems while simultaneously trying to adequately care for their children in order to avoid criminal justice system or family intervention. This likely causes significant stress, and some have reported increasing their substance use to cope with the stress of parenting (Pelham & Lang, 1993, 1999; Pelham et al., 1998). However, mothers who use illicit substances face a much greater risk of losing guardianship or custody of their children prior to incarceration, and whether or not their ISU is what facilitated the removal of their children, it is likely that their use will increase afterwards (El-Bassel et al., 1996). The need to examine differences in the backgrounds and experiences of incarcerated women is apparent. Women are a complex group and as feminists commonly state, there is no single “woman” experience. Thus, research must examine variations among different groups of women. This study will consider only two groups of incarcerated women – non-mothers and mothers of minor children. Of particular interest is how these groups differ in terms of their daily crack/cocaine use and how important factors such as social support impact their daily crack/cocaine use.
Social support has been defined as the “existence or availability of people on whom we can rely, people who let us know that they care about, value, and love us” (Sarason, Levine, Basham, & Sarason, 1983, p. 127). Previous research on social support in psychology, sociology, social work, and medicine has found that social support has a significant and positive impact on individual well-being and functioning. Individuals with adequate social support report greater physical and mental well-being (for a review of this literature, see Cohen, Underwood, & Gottlieb, 2000, ch. 1). While extant literature cites the importance of social support for women in general (Tucker, 1982; Mondanaro, 1989), few studies have focused particularly on one of the most strained group of women in our society: incarcerated mothers of minor children with substance use problems.
There is reason to hypothesize that social support may then be especially important for women with substance use problems. Not only do women regularly score higher than men on measures of stress, anxiety, and depression (Riehman et al, 2008), they also appear to be particularly susceptible to negative life events (Rhoads, 1983). This susceptibility to negative life events, including the likelihood of contracting sexually transmitted or blood borne infections, is also greater for women who use illicit substances (Holmberg, 1996; Irwin et al., 1996; CDC, 1998, 1996). According to Tucker’s (1982) findings, women who had drug problems experienced, or perceived themselves as experiencing, a greater number of stressful life circumstances than others. Tucker goes on to note that the social support-stress-coping model would imply that when under more strain, women with drug problems have more reason to resort to abusing drugs and are in greater need of social resources compared to both women without substance use problems and men with substance use problems (1982). This is not surprising since some of these negative events, such as suffering from a medical condition (Tucker, 1982), may be outside of the woman’s control which likely exacerbates the level of stress they cause.
The existing social support literature indicates that it may be even more crucial for women who have children than for non-mothers, particularly in helping them to adjust to being a single parent and reduce drug use (Donati, 1995; Stewart, 1995; El-Bassel et al., 1996). Given the extensive literature on the positive outcomes associated with higher levels of social support in the general population, it is expected that similar positive effects would be found among the population under study as well. As discussed earlier, substance-using women experience high rates of negative life events and therefore stand to benefit greatly from social support. Additionally, research shows that women with fewer sources of support will face added stress in trying to stay off drugs and in raising their children (Mondanaro, 1989). Since the majority of the women who are single mothers receive little or no financial help from their partners/ex-partners, it is expected that they might be particularly dependent upon those around them for support (El-Bassel, Chen, & Cooper, 1998). Because having children entails numerous obligations, substance-using mothers may rely more on the support of those around them than other women.
This study examines two main research questions using data from 307 female inmates. First, what effect does social support have on the daily use of crack/cocaine for the women in this sample? Second, is there a difference in the effect of social support on daily crack/cocaine use between mothers and non-mothers? It is hypothesized that there will be a negative relationship between social support and daily crack/cocaine use, and that this relationship will be stronger for mothers than for non-mothers.