The Effect Of Incarceration On Children: An Analysis Of The Literature In The Context Of The Belmont Report Essay Examples

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Family, Children, Parents, Study, Psychology, United States, Ethics, Crime

Pages: 5

Words: 1375

Published: 2023/05/15

The Belmont Report

The Belmont Report was designed to ensure that practitioners and psychologists in the United States upheld ethical standards in psychological studies. Historically, three ethical principles have been developed as guiding principles as a result of the Belmont Report; each of these principles must be adhered to by anyone or any organization that is using human test subjects during the course of their work. These three ethical principles emphasize respect for persons, beneficence, and justice—without adherence to these principles, the ethical study can and should be considered inappropriate and should not be conducted.
Each of these three facets of the Belmont Report has become integral to the understanding and structure of psychological and population studies on human participants today. The Belmont Report is still used as a guideline for practitioners and for Institutional Review Boards, the organizations that are responsible for ensuring that the three ethical principles of the report are followed by individuals or groups carrying out research on human populations.
Today, because of the institutionalization of the three guiding principles in the Belmont Report, it is rare to see anything approaching the kind of unethical and unjust treatment than many people suffered at the hands of psychological studies in the past. However, that does not mean that human studies and ethical questions have entirely disappeared; today, the questions regarding ethics and justice in the psychological realm are much smaller, and have a much more significant gray area. These ethical questions are decided by the Institutional Review Boards of whatever organization is sponsoring the study; without adhering to the three guiding principles of ethical study, there is no way for human research studies to go forward.

Respect for Persons

Respect for persons is an ethical concept that deals with the application of an individual’s personal autonomy within the context of a research setting. All individuals have the right to personal determination and autonomy, and a research setting should not ever take that away from them, regardless of what the overall goals of the research study are. For researchers, there are two distinct ethical responsibilities in regards to personal authority: the first piece is that informed consent must be given for each participant in the study. While in some studies there is a requirement that participants be kept from knowing the exact nature of the study—to avoid bias on the part of the participants—participants must be made aware of risks that they will face regardless of whether or not they know the exact nature of the study.
The second ethical requirement for researchers is to ensure that all participants in a study are protected, particularly if the individual is disadvantaged in some way. This ties into the context of justice, particularly for studies involving mothers who are incarcerated and their relationships with their children; many of the studies done on women and families in the penal system have described institutional injustices that lead to these individuals being disadvantaged in a number of ways (Bloom & Steinhart, 1993; Christian, 2009; Habecker, 2013). Both the children and the parents studied in the research are disadvantaged and at risk as a result of lower socioeconomic status and generally lower levels of educational attainment (Cullen, 2015; Dallaire, 2007; Kamphor, 1995).


A distinctive piece of ethical research is the pursuit of positive knowledge; beneficence describes the goal of betterment for the research participants and for society as a whole. It may seem self-explanatory that research should benefit the participants, but historically, many research projects were done with the overall goal of benefitting science; participants were the means to the end for researchers, rather than being integral parts of the study. Psychological studies are of particular concern, because there is so much potential for invisible, lasting damage; it is rare to see studies that are openly malevolent in today’s world, but psychological studies still have the potential to cause damage in the long term.
Most of the studies conducted on families with a parental figure in the penal system are quite sympathetic to the potential problems associated with psychological impacts of the penal system: none of the studies intentionally incarcerated anyone to focus on the impacts of incarceration, and all take a sympathetic approach to the issue of incarceration in families. Beneficence, in this body of literature, seems to be only a minor concern; most studies focus on existing situations, which eliminates the question of beneficence: the researchers are focusing on people who are already incarcerated, and are merely trying to understand the impacts of these situations and how to alleviate the suffering of the affected individuals and families (Cho, 2009; Bouchet, 2008; Robertson, 2007; Murray et al., 2012; Murray et al., 2007; Garcia, 2013; Glaze & Maruschak, 2008; Haney, 2001).


Justice is, perhaps, the most interesting aspect of ethics in research in the context of the subject of families in the penal system. The penal system itself is quite racially split; minority groups are more likely than others to be incarcerated, so the children of minority parents are also more likely to have one or more family members incarcerated, including a mother or a father (Hagan & Foster, 2012; McLaughlin, 2014; Matthews, 1983). The Belmont Report, given in the wake of a series of revelations about the treatment of poor and minority participants in research studies, laid clear guidelines regarding the treatment and selection of participants; however, a study of the American penal system necessitates a study of race relationships and racial structures in the United States.
The Belmont Report requires that participants volunteer for research, and requires that they be allowed informed consent regarding all the risks associated with participating in research. However, it does not require that researchers choose a wide variety of racial groups, nor does it say that researchers cannot discriminate demographically when choosing participants—there are very real insights to be gleaned from choosing or excluding individuals from one racial group or another.
As previously discussed, there are issues associated with race and gender that are particularly prescient when discussing the criminal justice system and the penal system in the United States of America; to ignore these issues would be to ignore a significant structural driver in the United States as whole. Children of all races feel the impact of having a parent who is incarcerated; however, there are differences in the ways that different racial groups deal with the issue of incarceration of a family member. There are also significant differences in the ways that different socioeconomic groups deal with issues associated with incarceration; finally, it should also be noted that the nature of the relationship between the child and the incarcerated individual is also prescient (Arditti, 2012). Incarceration of a mother impacts a child differently than the incarceration of a father. Each of these situations and different structures are important to understand when considering the penal system in the United States; it is not a breech of justice ethics to consider populations of a specific race, gender, or socioeconomic class when trying to determine the overall impact of the penal system on the children of the United States as a whole.

Discussion and Conclusions

Each of the three ethical concerns—respect for persons, beneficence, and justice—work in tandem during a psychological study. If a study is lacking in any of these ethical areas, it is likely that the study will fail to conform in other areas as well. The body of the literature available regarding incarceration of parents and the impact on children in the United States is generally sympathetic to the plight of the children, and nearly all of the research suggests that changes need to happen in the American penal system to better protect the children from the impact of incarceration. Although none of the research investigated for this discussion expressly focuses on race or socioeconomic class, much of the research determines that the overall impact of having a parental figure—particularly a mother—in the penal system is devastating for a child. All of the research done follows the quest for justice insofar as it seeks to alleviate the suffering of the families studied—either abstractly, through further understanding of the issue, or proactively, through the design and implementation of new treatment procedures.


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