Objectives The incarceration rate in the United States has increased rapidly since the mid-1970s and, accordingly, a large number of children are exposed to parental incarceration. Research finds that parental incarceration is associated with deleterious physical and mental health outcomes among children, but little is known about these children's health care access. Methods I used data from the 2011-2012 National Survey of Children's Health (N = 95,531), a population-based and nationally representative survey of non-institutionalized children ages 0-17 in the United States, to estimate the association between exposure to parental incarceration and children's unmet health care needs. Results In logistic regression models that adjust for an array of demographic and socioeconomic characteristics, children exposed to parental incarceration, compared to their counterparts, have 1.26 (95% CI 1.02-1.54) times the odds of having any unmet health care need. Analyses that disaggregate by type of unmet health care need (mental, dental, vision, mental health, or other) suggest this association is driven by a greater likelihood of unmet mental health care needs (OR 1.60; 95% CI 1.04-2.46). Conclusions Children exposed to parental incarceration, a vulnerable group especially at risk of physical and mental health problems, face challenges to health care access, especially mental health care access. Given that parental incarceration is concentrated among those children most in need of health care, parental incarceration may exacerbate existing inequalities in unmet health care needs.
Keywords: Health care access; National Survey of Children’s Health; Parental incarceration; Unmet health care needs.