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"She's my baby": how recently incarcerated fathers experience their relationship with their daughters.

The lived experience of recently incarcerated fathers and their perception of the impact of incarceration on their relationship with their daughters were explored in this phenomenological study. Thirteen fathers living in transitional housing following incarceration were interviewed about their relationship with their eldest daughter under the age of 18 years. The framework of the study was primarily guided by Moustakas's Phenomenological Transcendental approach to gain a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of fathers' experiences through their attitudes, recollections, feelings and perceptions regarding this relationship. Findings reflected fathers reevaluating relationships with women after the birth of their daughters, decision-making about whether to contact their daughters during incarceration and reentry, identifying as their daughters' protector, recognizing that their incarceration affected their daughters, and experiencing both optimism and apprehensiveness in reconnecting with their daughters during the reentry process. The study shows the need for more research and clinical practice on the special dynamics of father-daughter relationships when a man has been incarcerated.

Keywords: fathers, daughters, parental incarceration, reentry, recidivism


Although there has been an emerging trend in recent studies to examine how fathering influences child development and contributes to a child's life trajectory, there are a limited number of studies specifically investigating the father-daughter relationship, particularly when incarceration and reentry are present. In a review of the literature, only a handful of studies examined fathers' narratives in the context of incarceration or specifically investigated the reentry process (Arditti, Smock & Parkman, 2005; Bahr, Armstrong, Gibbs, Harris & Fisher, 2005; Buston, 2010; Tripp, 2009). Thus, the purpose of this study was to explore the lived experiences and perceptions of recently incarcerated fathers on their relationship with their daughters.


Scholarship on father involvement and paternal impact on children has expanded significantly over the last 30 years (Brotherson, Yamamote, & Acock, 2003; Flouri & Buchanan, 2003; Lamb, ed., 2010; Leidy et al., 2011; Lewis & Lamb, 2003; Vuori, 2009; Williams & Kelly, 2005). The notion of responsible fathering has become a conceptual staple for both research and programming (Doherty, Kouneski, & Erickson, 1998; Marsiglio, Amato, Day, & Lamb, 2000). Studies suggest that father involvement promotes healthier adolescent adjustment and well-being (Brotherson et al., 2003; Fluori, 2006; Flouri & Buchanan, 2003; Leidy et al., 2011), less risk-taking behaviors for adolescents (Goncy & van Dulmen, 2010), higher self-esteem (Bulanda & Majumdar, 2009), enhanced pro-social behavior in children (Fluori, Buchanan, & Bream, 2002; Fluori, 2006; King & Sobolweski, 2006) and higher success in adult intimate relationships (Van Schaick & Stolberg, 2008).

Furthermore, studies have examined how father presence and involvement specifically enhances daughters' decision-making processes, academic engagement, overall self-esteem, and mental health (Cahir, 1995; Cooper, 2009; Jackson, 2003; Williamson, 2004). Flouri and Buchanan (2003) discovered that father involvement with adolescent girls protected against psychological distress when they reached adulthood. Other findings suggest that paternal influence decreases antisocial behavior (Kosterman, Haggerty, Spoth, & Redmond, 2004) and sexual risk taking (Peterson, 2007; Stein, Milburn, Zane, & Rotheram-Borus, 2009) in daughters. Closeness and affirmation of fathers reduced internalization of problems in girls (Mitchell, Booth, & King, 2009), as well as enhanced women's comfort with their sexuality as adults (Scheffler & Naus, 1999). However, the literature is limited in exploration of the interior aspects of father-daughter relationships. Because father involvement has been examined quantitatively for the most part, meaning-making around fathers' experiences in parenting their daughters has not been extensively examined (Hawkins & Palkovitz, 1999). This is particularly evident for fathers who are incarcerated.


In 2011, the U.S. Justice Bureau reported there were 7.1 million individuals in the United States who were either on probation, paroled or incarcerated. Of the approximately 1.6 million prisoners in the United States, 810,000 of these individuals identify themselves as parents, with 92% of these being fathers (U.S. Department of Justice, 2010). Additionally, 1.5 million children have a parent who is incarcerated, the majority of these children being under the age of ten (National Center for Children and Families, 2010). Thus, incarceration continues to be a central problem facing families, communities, and most significantly, children who have a parent in prison. Incarcerated fathers experience unique challenges in relation to parental involvement in the lives of their children. For many incarcerated men, fathering in prison involves a sense of helplessness and frustration (Arditti et al., 2005). Incarceration may make it difficult for men to identify and conceptualize themselves as fathers due to the extrication from their children, which may also create complications for reunification during the reentry process (Dyer, 2005).

For both the families and the offender, incarceration can lead to parental strain, economic hardship for the parent who is not incarcerated, and significant emotional stress (Arditti, Lambert-Shute, & Joest, 2003; Swisher & Waller, 2008). Negative effects on the family unit consist of the deterioration and disconnection of family relationships, particularly with the incarcerated person, and psychological and emotional turmoil on family members (Hairston, 2001). Also, a father may perceive that the relationships with his children are based on the relationship he has with the children's mother and that she is the gatekeeper in terms of the amount of contact he has with them (Arditti et al., 2005; Roy & Dyson, 2005; Swisher & Waller, 2008). Thus, the contact between the father and children may cease because the couple relationship either ends or is turbulent.

In a qualitative study by Nesmith and Ruhland (2008) that explored the experiences of children who had an incarcerated parent, children stated they were aware of the stress both their father and mother were experiencing, and the children often assumed an adult-like responsibility of trying to make the situation better. The children also stressed they wanted to have a relationship with their incarcerated father. However, children may not be able to visit their fathers because of challenges in the visitation process such as long distances to travel to the prison, not being able to have physical contact with their father in the prison, and feeling disrespected by staff in the correctional facility (Arditti, 2003). Unfortunately, the loss of contact due to incarceration has been linked to maladjustment for children, including poorer academic achievement, more troubled peer relationships and early involvement with the legal system (Dallaire & Wilson, 2010; Dannerbeck, 2005; Van de Rakt, Murray, & Nieuwbeerta, 2012). In addition, there is an indication that daughters of incarcerated fathers struggle in establishing healthy relationships with males in their lives, particularly in intimate relationships (West-Smith, 2007).

Research on meaning-making of fathers' experiences during incarceration is limited. In a study by Arditti, Smock and Parkman (2005), 51 incarcerated fathers were interviewed on their experience of incarceration and how they perceived this affected their ability to be an involved parent. Fathers described feeling helpless and that they were unable to be a "good father" while they were in prison. Tripp (2009) also conducted a qualitative study with 25 incarcerated fathers on their identity as a father while in prison. Findings reflected that fathers regulated contact with their children and visits were often difficult for them, they attempted to stay connected to the identity they had as a father prior to incarceration, and they had high expectations about future possibilities for their relationship with their family and children during reentry. However, for both of these studies, gender of the child was not a variable nor was the actual experience of the reentry process.


Fathers face several new challenges during the reentry process. Statistics indicate that each year there are more than 600,000 individuals who return home after serving time in a state or federal correctional facility (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2012). Given that in 2007,744,200 fathers were incarcerated compared to 65,600 mothers, a significant number of persons leaving prison are likely men who have children (The Sentencing Project, 2009). Returning to the community after being incarcerated is often a complex transition for offenders, families, and communities (National Institute of Justice, 2013). These individuals may face challenges with substance abuse, inadequate education and employment skills, lack of housing options, mental health issues, and poverty (National Institute of Justice, 2013). Often these individuals have little assistance with reintegration and reunification into their families and communities. Families may also be unprepared for what this transition will entail. Challenges during incarceration often carry over into the reentry process and include relationship strain, emotional distress among family members, social stigma of the incarceration, and the continuation of financial stressors (Lebel, 2012; Nesmith & Ruhland, 2008; Phillips & Lindsay, 2011). Additionally, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (2011) estimates that 67.5% of the population released from prison will be rearrested in three years. Potentially, children and fathers may experience the loss of their relationship multiple times over the course of a child's life.

Research indicates that incarcerated men who maintain contact with supportive family members have greater success after release, such as better employment outcomes and reduced drug use, than those who do not (Bahr, Harris, Fisher, & Armstong, 2010; Phillips & Lindsay, 2011). Thus reentry could be successful for fathers who have economic and emotional support. At the same time, some studies propose that fathers may have unrealistic ideas or ambivalent views of family life when they return home, particularly regarding the relationships with their children (Day, Acock, Bahr, & Arditti, 2005; Tripp, 2009). Because of the challenges associated with incarceration, father-child relationships may have weakened, which can result in difficulty reconnecting with one another during reentry.

There is little research on the reentry process, particularly regarding the parent-child relationship. Arditti and Parkman (2011) conducted a qualitative study on young men's transition to adulthood post-incarceration, but fathering was not a primary focus of the study. Bahr, Armstrong, Gibbs, Harris and Fisher (2005) also interviewed men who had recently been paroled about variables that reduced recidivism. Participants who had support from family and friends were more successful in their reentry process. But fathering was not a focal point of this study either, though a recommendation was made for a concentrated focus on family relationships to prevent higher recidivism rates.


When fathers underestimate their importance in their daughters' lives, they may withdraw, doubt their significance and influence, or misunderstand their daughters' needs (Meeker, 2006). This underestimation might be particularly common among incarcerated fathers who may see themselves as having few resources to offer their daughters. Exploring this dyad may be beneficial for the fathers, given that family connections have been found to be a protective factor for men to lower recidivism rates upon reentry into the community (Bahr et al., 2010; Phillips & Lindsay, 2011). Learning more about the relational connection between fathers and daughters may yield useful information on ways to lower the percentage of fathers' recidivating during reentry, which in turn might reduce the negative impact on daughters due to continual criminal arrests of their father.

Previous studies on the effects of paternal incarceration on children tended to ignore gender of the child effects or focused primarily on the father-son relationship (Gabel, 1992; K. Miller, 2006; Murray & Farrington, 2005; Parke & Clarke-Stewart, 2001; Patterson, Reid, & Dishion, 1992; Roettger & Swisher, 2011; Sack, 1977; Van de Rakt, Nieuwbeerta, & De Graaf, 2008; Wildeman & Western, 2010). Prior research indicates that fathers may emphasize parenting their sons more than their daughters, including doing more caretaking (Manlove & Vemon-Feagans, 2002; Morgan, Lye & Condran, 1988) and spending more time with their sons than daughters (Raley & Bianchi, 2006; Tucker, McHale & Crouter, 2003; Updegraff, Delgado & Wheeler, 2008). In view of these data, the father-daughter relationship may be at particular risk when the father is incarcerated.

In a study by West-Smith (2007), where adult children of incarcerated fathers were interviewed, findings suggested that sons tended to have higher levels of substance abuse and interaction with the criminal justice system, while daughters appeared to struggle more in retaining employment and sustaining healthy intimate relationships. These differences could be due to how fathers interacted with their children during the incarceration process. In a review of the literature on the impact of divorce, daughters tended to fare worse in terms of loss of contact and financial support from their fathers (Nielsen, 2011). Although divorce is not the same as incarceration and reentry, it is still a potentially negative familial transition that affects the father-daughter relationship. There continues to be an incomplete picture on fathering in the context of incarceration and reentry as far as the father-daughter relationship is concerned.

Through inquiry about incarcerated fathers' experiences, this study sheds light on the unexplored meanings that fathers create specifically about their relationships with their daughters. Although fathers do not define their daughters' personhood, they can contribute to shaping the experiences of their daughters (Doucet, 2006). Thus, exploring fathers' narratives about their experiences with their daughters allows for examination of various dimensions of this uncharted relationship, including men's perspectives on and acknowledgment of their role in the lives of their daughters. When an unforeseen event such as incarceration affects the father-daughter relationship, having access to information on how fathers experience their relationships with their daughters during this turbulent time could be beneficial in determining how to reinforce both paternal involvement and positive child outcomes for daughters. Obtaining narratives from fathers that center on their relationships with their daughters prior to, during, and after incarceration allows for a more comprehensive understanding of how fathers engage in this relationship, which may assist in determining how to more adequately support fathers in their relationship with their daughters during this process (A. Miller, 2010). Enhancing this connection may then assist in lowering the percentage of fathers recidivating during reentry.


Study Design

This is the first study to explicitly focus on the perspectives of men who were recently released from prison and their relationship with their daughters. Phenomenological interviews were conducted at one time point with fathers focusing on lived, meaning-making experiences of their relationship with their eldest daughter age 18 or younger prior to, during, and after incarceration. Interviews centered on gathering thick descriptions, feelings, recollections and perceptions of fathers' experiences with their daughters to better understand the phenomenon under investigation (Moustakas, 1994).

Phenomenology focuses on the lived experiences and meaning-making of individuals regarding a particular phenomenon (Lester, 1999). Phenomenological approaches vary, however, based on epistemological grounds in terms of what a researcher uses as his/her method in obtaining and analyzing the data (Carter & Little, 2007). This study was primarily guided by Moustakas's Phenomenological Transcendental approach (Moustakas, 1994,1995). The rationale for choosing this approach was based on honoring the experiences of the participants rather than the author's interpretation of the data (Creswell, 2007). Meaning-making is created by the participants as they describe this particular lived experience (Creswell, 2007). Furthermore, the lead author has personal experience regarding the subject matter of this study, which lends itself to the initial exploration of the father-daughter relationship during incarceration. Therefore, this author's experience allows for an emic perspective on the subject matter from the viewpoint of a daughter with an incarcerated father during her childhood.

Given the lead author's personal experience with this subject, incorporating this particular analytical approach underscored the importance of bracketing her own experiences such as holding herself as an instrument of the research process for critical examination and review of interpretative understanding. This included utilizing an intuitive inquiry that consisted of the lead author putting aside her assumptions of the phenomenon, exhaustive and repetitive contemplation of the data, and development of core themes arising directly from the participants' experiences (Moustakas, 1995). Examples of particular assumptions by the lead author consisted of the emotional investment incarcerated fathers may have in their relationship with their daughters and the desire to rejoin their daughters during reentry given that the lead author's father maintained his connection to her during his time in prison and that he reconnected with her post-release. This process allowed the lead author to enhance her understanding and interpretation of the data while also bracketing her potential biases and presuppositions with the phenomenon given her personal experience with this issue (Moustakas, 1995). The second and third authors were aware of the first author's experiences and bracketing processes and were in continuous dialogue regarding the potential impact on data gathering and analysis.

Participant Selection and Recruitment

Purposeful sampling was used for this study to ensure the participants met the criteria and to make certain there was a shared experience of the phenomenon of being a father to a daughter while incarcerated (Moustakas, 1994; Patton, 2002).

Criteria for recruiting participants were as follows:

1. The participant's eldest daughter was age 18 or younger at the time of incarceration and when the participant was interviewed. This decision was made in order to provide consistency in the particular relationship fathers were reporting on if they had more than one daughter in this age bracket.

2. The participants must have been out of prison between 1 and 18 months to ensure a recent recollection of incarceration in conjunction with experience in reentry.

3. The crime that the father was incarcerated for could not be against the mother of his daughter or any of his children.

4. The participant must have been incarcerated in a state or federal prison and not in a county jail due to differences in these settings, such as jails tending to be for shorter sentences and located in the community the person lives in.

Fathers were recruited through three local community agencies in a Midwestern urban center that specialize in working with fathers during reentry. These agencies consisted of a fathering project, a mentoring-based program, and a halfway house. Three recruitment techniques were implemented to obtain participants which included flyers being displayed for the study at these three locations, professionals who worked in these agencies informing their clients of the study, and the lead author giving brief presentations to potential participants at each location. Interested persons contacted her directly to go through a screening process to ensure they met the criteria for inclusion in the study. Interviews were conducted at one of the three agencies.


Thirteen fathers were recruited for the study (pseudonyms were given to each of the participants to protect their identity, see Table 1). Five of the fathers completed some high school, six graduated from high school, one completed some college, and one graduated from college. Nine of the fathers were never married to the mother of their daughter, one was divorced, and three were separated. Seven fathers had both joint and physical custody of their daughter, one had only legal custody, and four did not have any legal or physical custody. How often the fathers currently saw their daughters ranged from one father indicating almost every day to three fathers stating once a year, with the majority of fathers stating a few times a week to a couple times a month. Eleven of the fathers had other children; this was the only daughter for four fathers. Two fathers reported this was their only child. Finally, the number of times fathers were incarcerated ranged from one to six, with the mean being 2.6 times. Four of the fathers stated this most recent incident was their only time incarcerated. Additional demographic data are presented in Table 1.

Data Collection

All interviews lasted approximately 60 to 90 minutes and were audio-taped and later transcribed by the lead author. The interviews began with a description of the general focus of the study and obtaining informed consent. The participants also filled out a brief form on demographic information and incarceration history. Participants were given a $10 gift card for their participation in the study.

The interview format involved a primary grand-tour question, followed by semi-structured interview questions concerning the participant's experience of his relationship with his eldest daughter (Creswell, 2007). The grand-tour question is intended to capture broad experiences and guide the trajectory of the study (Creswell, 2007). For this study, the grand-tour question was: "How do recently incarcerated fathers experience their relationship with their daughter prior to, during and after incarceration?" The lead author began the interviews by asking participants to tell her about their experience of becoming a father to their daughter. Participants typically answered this by describing when they found out the mother of their daughter was pregnant or viewing the birth of their daughter. Additional follow-up questions were directly linked to what participants reported after this initial question and were continuously aimed at better understanding the phenomenon under investigation within the context of their experiences with their daughter, particularly surrounding incarceration and reentry (Creswell, 2007). This process centered on deeper exploration of the participants' stories by examining emotions, perceptions and lived experiences of the father-daughter relationship (Moustakas, 1994). Examples of follow-up questions included: "What was your relationship like with your daughter prior to incarceration?" and "What is your experience of your relationship with your daughter while you were in prison?" Probing questions were also utilized to obtain thicker descriptions of the participants' experiences. Examples of probing questions are, "How was this relationship the same or different from when you were not in prison?," "Describe the quality of your relationship during this time," and "Please say more about that." The lead author also recorded direct quotations, key words, and behavioral observations of the participant during the interview to enhance the authenticity of the data collection process (Moustakas, 1995).

Data Analysis

In Moustakas's Transcendental Phenomenological approach (1994), it is imperative to: (a) locate what actually exists in the data instead of the researcher's interpretation of what exists, and (b) assist those who have not had the experience of being a father to a daughter in prison to comprehend this phenomenon. The first stage consisted of a systematic process entitled epoche, which includes examining and acknowledging presuppositions the lead author had on this phenomenon and discussing these with the collaborating authors (Moustakas, 1994). In alignment with phenomenological principles, the researcher is an integral part of the research process (Moustakas, 1995). Cognizant of this, the lead author focused on embracing the participants' stories through accepting their perceptions of their experiences and suspending assumptions and judgments she may have regarding the phenomenon based upon her own experiences (Moustakas, 1995).

During the transcription of the data, the lead author immersed herself in the data by making detailed notes of her reflections and impressions. In addition, she conducted multiple reviews of the data and recorded her own biases and assumptions, which assisted in suspending her judgments about the subject matter (Moustakas, 1994; Spradley, 1979). Verification strategies for trustworthiness of the data were further enhanced by regularly debriefing her experiences and impressions with her doctoral committee members to enhance the quality of the interpretive process and to minimize personal bias (Morse, Barrett, Mayan, Olson, & Spiers, 2002). Another way of strengthening the trustworthiness and rigor in this study was keeping a detailed audit trail describing and justifying all of the steps undertaken in the research process. The lead author also relied on the second and third authors who did not have personal experience or knowledge of this subject matter but who were both experienced qualitative researchers to assist in the coding and analysis of the data. Finally, the Atlas/ti 6.2 qualitative software program was utilized to ensure no other significant themes were overlooked and that there was consistency between the Atlas/ti and the researchers' analyses.

Phenomenological reduction consisted of each individual interview being analyzed first to locate personal experience and meaning of the phenomenon and then noting direct statements, or meaning units, from the participants' experiences (Moustakas, 1994). This allowed for a thickening, or extensive elaboration of the individual experience of each participant prior to exploring the narratives within a larger context of all of the participants (Creswell, 2007). Once this was achieved, the cases were collectively examined, and meaning units were clustered together. A synthesis of the textual and composite descriptions of the data produced themes that reflected the essence of the phenomenon of the father-daughter relationship (Moustakas, 1994). Also, exceptions of individual participants were pinpointed with conjunction to the larger narrative, and metaphors used by participants were noted. Both the individual and collective experiences of the participants are presented in the findings.


During the course of these interviews, the fathers provided an expansive, detailed, and emotional account of their relationship with their daughters and how incarceration affected the relationship. Five core themes emerged in this study, with each theme being intertwined with the others. These themes consisted of: reevaluating relationships with women, calculated decision-making regarding contact, self-identification as their daughters' protector, recognition that incarceration affected their daughters, and optimism and apprehensiveness regarding reconnecting with their daughters during reentry. Quotations are used to illustrate the themes which are followed by the name of the participant.

Reevaluating Relationships with Women

Some of the fathers reflected on their intimate relationships with women preceding the birth of their daughter, including their daughter's mother. Fathers revealed feeling shameful of how they had treated women earlier in their lives. This ranged from infidelity, being physically or verbally abusive, and having negative feelings towards women in general. Two of the fathers described their change of attitude as well as emphasized that they did not want their daughters to be treated by men the way they had behaved towards women. Nathaniel, a 38-year-old father, stated "Having a daughter changed the way I thought about and treated women because how I treated the women I was with I wouldn't want someone to treat my daughter that way." Another father, Shawn, commented that "Having a daughter changed my life because after that I never put my hands on a woman again. I couldn't be a good dad if I did that."

Many of the fathers said they gained more respect for women after their daughters were born and determined they needed to take on more responsibility as a positive male role model in their daughters' lives. This was particularly evident for fathers who had observed women in their family being mistreated by men when the fathers were growing up. Four of the fathers decided to marry their daughter's mother and attempt to "settle down" prior to or after the birth of their daughter. Most of the fathers acknowledged caring about their daughter's mother, even if they did not remain in a relationship after the birth of their daughter and verbalized respect and admiration for the way the mother parented his daughter, particularly when he was incarcerated.

Her mom had to stand up. My father was incarcerated so my mom had to play the mother and father role and so with me being gone I knew her mother had to play that role as well.... I will never take nothing from her mom. I will always thank her for doing what I didn't do and being there. (Eric)

Calculated Decision-Making Regarding Contact

Fathers described a thoughtful, deliberate decision-making process of how much and what type of contact to have with their daughters while they were incarcerated. Most of the fathers limited communication and often refused visits from their daughters with the assumption they were protecting them from being exposed to the prison setting. Fathers did not want their daughters "seeing him like this" in prison garb and behind bars or being exposed to "ChoMo's" (child molesters). Many fathers were discouraged by not being able to touch their daughters, such as hugging them or holding their hand, when they came to visit. Other fathers revealed having a hard time seeing their daughters cry during visits.

A few fathers were also adamant that they did not want their daughters thinking criminal activity was "cool" by seeing inmates playing cards in the visiting rooms and not having to work or go to school. This also resulted in limiting visits with their daughters.

I didn't want my daughter to see anything about prison that would make an impression like it was nice or cool to sit up and play cards or anything that could have said it was a positive thing. I didn't want her to see anything positive about it. When I talked to her on the phone I just told her all the negative things because I didn't want her to think it was positive at all. (Charles)

An exception was a 37-year-old father who had been incarcerated for three years and was tenacious that his daughter visited him so he knew what was going on in her life.

I needed to see her face and look in her eyes so I knew she was okay out there in the world. I still needed to communicate with her and be able to talk to her about what was going on so she wasn't like 'Oh my dad's in there so he wouldn't know.' I was still able to give her advice and to let her know that no matter what happens in life I will be there for her and protect her. I never wanted her to forget that. (Chris)

Chris, however, was the only father in the study who was in a minimum security prison where there was more flexibility and touch was allowed during visits. Chris admitted the setting made a difference in making him feeling more comfortable in allowing his daughter to come for visits and that he had refused visits initially when he was in a higher security facility.

All of the fathers in the study attempted to maintain some sort of contact throughout their entire incarceration with their daughters, whether through phone calls, letters, cards or visits. For most of the fathers, this consisted of weekly letter writing and phone calls, and several of the fathers stated they had kept the letters they received from their daughters during incarceration and read them often. One father, Sammy, reported he received 93 cards and 227 letters in prison from his daughter, as well as pictures, and that he keeps those letters in a safe place to remind him how lucky he is to have her in his life.

Contact was also a significant issue during reentry. All of the fathers in this study were in some type of transitional housing while they were on supervised release from prison and therefore did not live with their daughters. Most of the fathers did not want their daughters to visit them in these facilities because it was not a safe place for their daughters with other offenders living there, because they did not want them to ask a lot of questions about why they were there, and because it was painful for them when their daughters had to leave again. Some of the fathers said that transitional housing replicated prison settings in many ways regarding limited time with their daughters, staff observing their interactions, and having other offenders in the same vicinity as their daughters. As a consequence, many of the fathers limited contact with their daughters while they were in these facilities. Two fathers stated they were not going to have their daughters come to the facilities at all and would wait to see them when they were able to return home.

Self-Identification as Her Protector

In conducting a word analysis of the data in Atlas/ti 6.2 which measures the frequency of each word spoken in the interviews, "protection" was used more than any other word. Fathers maintained that protecting their daughters was a significant part of their identity as a father. Despite their incarceration and criminal history, fathers emphasized they wanted to be an example of what a "good man" is for their daughters, which consisted of defending and safeguarding them, particularly from other men.

If you need a man they will take advantage of you ... cause I been there done that so I know how it works [with women] ... If she needs something she can ask me, but she don't need to ask anyone else because they will take advantage of her. I want her to know what a good man is and I got to protect her and make sure that happens. (Travis)

Fathers used terms such as "vulnerable," "innocent," and "gentle" to describe their daughters and stated it was their role to protect their daughters. Some fathers also described their daughters as "strong women" but men can be "tricky" and still take advantage of them.

She don't need anything from no one. Cause I'm a man and I know the tricks and trade on how to get a woman and I don't want my daughter to end up in the wrong spot at the wrong time so I need to step up. I need to protect her. (Shawn)

Some fathers reflected on the protection of their daughters as being an act of redemption in which keeping them safe and ensuring nothing bad happened to them was a way to make up for the time they spent away from their daughters while in prison. Fathers expressed regret for not being there for their daughters while incarcerated because they believed they were unable to protect them during that time and were fearful about their little girl growing up in a "crazy world." Also, two of the fathers justified lying to their daughters while incarcerated by saying they were at "school" or "out of town." These fathers believed that hiding the truth from their daughters was essentially protecting them. As one father put it, "maintain her innocence" and shelter her from knowing her father was a "loser" who "ended up in prison."

Many of the fathers said they had protected their daughters prior to incarceration by compartmentalizing their criminal activities. Some scheduled their criminal activities where they believed it did not interfere with time with their daughters. Others talked about being gone for a few days to "take care of business." All of these fathers described this as "not bringing the streets home." Even though they were aware that engaging in these types of activities was not healthy, they often stated they did not feel they had a choice because it supported their family and their lifestyle. Most of the fathers also believed that their daughters were not aware of their criminal activity although they acknowledged it probably affected their relationship with daughters. Many fathers wished they could change the time in their lives when they engaged in criminal activity or were incarcerated now that they could reflect on how destructive their choices were to their relationship with their daughters.

Recognition that Daughters Are Affected by Incarceration

Most of the fathers believed their incarceration had some impact on their daughters, although a few stated their daughters were really young and probably did not fully understand where they were. These fathers had daughters who were not bom yet or were infants or toddlers during their incarceration. However, even these fathers reported their absence during that time most likely affected their daughters negatively. Some of the fathers described their daughters' responses to them in the things they said in letters or phone calls.

When I was locked up this time she wrote me a letter and she said, "I don't know if I should call you dad or Charles because you are never here and always in prison and you choose drugs over me." (Charles)

Another father processed the distance he felt from his daughter when he spoke with her:

I think she's scared of the broken promises so I'm not promising her anything and just telling her I'm doing the best I can and she's real scared about that in getting involved with me and then.... I disappear again and so I'm sure she's walking on eggshells. So she's protecting herself from being hurt again. I have to prove myself to her. (Marcus)

Acknowledged these responses from their daughters were often painful, fathers also understood why their daughters may have felt that way. Some fathers alleged that their daughters were not angry but might have been ashamed or disappointed of their father being incarcerated. A few fathers believed their daughters held resentment towards them for being in prison. Two fathers also discussed their daughters getting into trouble and hanging out with the wrong crowd, which they attributed to being incarcerated and to not being there for them. One father, Sammy, stated "It hurts everyone when I'm away, but it hurts her the most. I know it was real tough on her, and she's happy I'm out, but at the same time she's acting up and getting into fights."

Fathers reflected on their daughters being upset and disappointed in the fact that they missed important activities in their lives, as well as experiencing grief with their father being absent. Fathers often expressed a lot of guilt and regret around this, with a father, Reginald, stating "She asked me where I went and if I still loved her and if she crossed my mind when I was in there [prison]. When I am coming home and why I am missing her birthdays."

A few fathers conveyed that incarceration actually brought them closer to their daughters. One father stated that the increased communication via letters and phone calls strengthened the bond between him and his daughter, although he still believed being in prison was difficult for her. Two fathers did not feel incarceration had a significant impact on their daughters. One of these fathers explained it from a spiritual perspective.

It probably wasn't bad because we still communicated and she still got to see me even though I couldn't be there sometimes when she wanted me to be but I was definitely there when she needed me ... we went through this together so everything happens for a reason so the reason I was gone could be to show her the importance of me being in her life ... and to show her I want her in my life too. (Chris)

Optimism and Apprehensiveness for Reconnecting with Daughters During Reentry

Fathers reported experiencing both optimism and apprehensiveness in their ability to reconnect with their daughters during the reentry process. To begin with, all fathers expressed hope for their future with their daughters following the reentry process. Most of the fathers wanted to be a positive role model for their daughters and to support their dreams of going to college, walking daughters down the aisle at their wedding, and encouraging them to be successful in life. Some of the fathers talked about being more present in their daughters' lives and regaining their trust--that they will be there for them when needed. Some fathers wanted to resume child support payments and provide financially for their daughters. Fathers also described the happiness of being able to pick up the phone and call their daughters whenever they wanted, and of their daughters calling them. Fathers articulated the importance of how their daughters viewed them.

I want to be a role model for her. I want to be the person she sees that earns everything he gets and not try to swindle nobody and take the fast way out. I want to be a leader and show her it's okay to work and work is good.... I can be a better father.... I want a good relationship with her so she needs to see my face and have my presence. (Jason)

Another father, Marcus, summed it up by saying, "I want her to look at me and be proud."

Many of the fathers viewed the reentry process as a second chance to connect with their daughters and to right all of the wrongs they made in their relationships prior to going into prison. Many acknowledged it would take time to rebuild their relationships with their daughters, and a few believed they could pick up where they left off.

Interestingly, a localized essence was present with fathers who described their relationships as being more on the periphery of their daughters' lives prior to incarceration (n = 3), compared to fathers who discovered they were a father while incarcerated (n = 2), and fathers who described a close relationship with their daughters prior to incarceration (n = 8). For the last two groups, these fathers reported more hope of a strong, connected relationship with their daughters now that they were out of prison. They were proactive in calling and visiting them, preparing documents for the court to obtain visitation, and expressing more confidence that they would continue to be a significant part of their daughters' lives. The fathers who were estranged prior to incarceration expressed a more passive role in reconnecting with their daughters, such as stating they would be "lucky" if they even received visitation or they were going to "put the ball in my daughter's court" if she wanted to connect with the him. It is important to note that these three fathers wanted a relationship with their daughters, yet it appeared they were more apprehensive about this being a possibility.

A few of the fathers also dialogued about concerns pertaining to legal matters with their daughters, particularly related to custody. These fathers worried that the courts would not grant them visitation due to their felony record. Although many of the fathers in this study had a cordial relationship with their daughters' mothers, a few fathers were apprehensive about how mothers would react now that they were out of prison and wanting to reestablish a connection with their daughters. Most stated that in order to have a good relationship with their daughters, there needed to be a good relationship with the mother. One father expressed concern about his daughter's mother allowing him to take his daughter on weekends like he used to do prior to being in prison:

Her mom worries about me using [drugs] again and doing all that--I did prior to going in the joint. We get along but she loves her daughter too and I get that. It just makes it tough for me to connect with my daughter when it's always up to her mom if I can do that or not. (Jason)


This study provides a glimpse into recently incarcerated fathers' perceptions of how they view and interact with their daughters. When the focus is parenting, it is often the mother who is consulted as the primary parent, particularly if it involves a daughter (Phares, Fields, & Binitie, 2006). When the father-child relationship has been explored, studies have tended to focus on the relationship between fathers and sons (Manlove & Vemon-Feagans, 2002; Morgan, Lye & Condran, 1988; Raley & Bianchi, 2006; Tucker, McHale & Crouter, 2003; Updegraff. Delgado & Wheeler, 2008). However, the findings of this study suggest that fathers who have been incarcerated also want to be included in the lives of their daughters and engage in a parental role. Findings also suggest that fathers in this study recognize the implication of their influence, including their incarceration, in the lives of their daughters and were concerned about their well-being.

The aforementioned themes were elaborated upon as fathers specifically reflected on their daughters' experiences with the incarceration and reentry processes. Fathers often became emotional at the point in the interview when they considered how their daughters might have experienced their incarceration. Most of the fathers acknowledged that their incarceration probably had a negative impact on their daughters. It was in these moments that fathers often cried or pulled out pictures to show their daughters. They also expressed remorse in exposing their daughters to this type of experience and were adamant about never wanting to hurt them again. Many of the fathers also discussed being focused on their own process of surviving incarceration, which resulted in being non-empathetic to how it was affecting their daughters. Although prisons differ in their policies and practices, imprisonment is a challenge for most individuals (Adams, 1992). Attempting to maintain family connection is often difficult when a primary focus of punishment is disconnecting someone from the comforts of their former life, including their family and community. Furthermore, research has shown that men who are incarcerated often go into survival mode, which may appear as isolation or dissociating to exist in that type of environment (Haney, 2006). As such, fathers may negate their daughters' experiences when they are struggling to resolve the impact incarceration had on their own lives. This may also be due to a failure to encourage incarcerated men to reflect on the potential impact they may have on the lives of women or how women interpret the world (Silverstein, 2006). Accordingly, men may view their daughters' experiences as detached from their own, as well as prison life being separate from parenting life.

Many of the findings are consistent with those of prior research that have examined fathering and incarceration. As in previous studies, fathers in the current study emphasized how the prison system constricted their relationship with their children (Arditti, 2005; Tripp, 2009), how men struggle with identifying their role as a father while incarcerated and experiences of emotional turmoil comprised of shame and guilt over not being able to protect and parent their daughters as they would if they were not in prison (Clarke et al., 2005; Dyer, 2005; Tripp 2009).

Perhaps a distinct finding of this study consisted of fathers identifying themselves as a significant male figure in their daughters' lives and the need to protect them. They demonstrated protection in their concerns over their daughters visiting them in prison and in the decision-making process of whether or not to have their daughters visit them in prison due to: other offenders potentially being inappropriate, the correctional facility not being accommodating to visitors, and the fear that attributes of prison life such as not having to go to school might be perceived as positive. This was also evident in limiting contact at transitional housing facilities during reentry because these were considered unsafe places for daughters due to the presence of other offenders living there. Being a protector of their daughters appeared to be an integral part of how incarcerated fathers viewed themselves in their role as fathers and men.

There also seemed to be a desire to protect their daughters from other men in the world whom they viewed as potentially harmful. This desire appeared to be constructed from how they saw women close to them, such as sisters and mothers, being treated by men. They also reflected on how their own fathers behaved towards women and how they themselves acted towards women. There was the perception that even though they may have a history of being unkind towards women, they could still be good fathers to their daughters. On this issue, men described redeeming themselves through their relationship with their daughters by creating a more optimistic outlook on life and shifting their perceptions to viewing women more positively despite continuation in criminal activity.

Regarding reentry, fathers primarily spoke of being hopeful of reconnecting with their daughters and having a good relationship with them. Many of the fathers believed they could resume their relationship where they left off prior to going to prison or minimizing the long-term effect incarceration may have on their relationship. This was evident in both Arditti's (2005) and Tripp's (2009) studies in which participants had high expectations of reconnecting with their families post-release.

Some of the fathers maintained a positive relationship with the mother of their daughter while they were incarcerated, which helped facilitate the relationship with their daughters. Other fathers expressed concern over custody issues. This was reflected in men viewing the legal system as favoring mothers and not validating the importance of fathers in the lives of children (Becerra, Thomas & Ong, 2001; Bloomer, Sipe & Ruedt, 2002; Laakso & Adams, 2006). The additional challenges of having been incarcerated and having a criminal record can create further concern for fathers as to how the legal system might adjudicate regarding visitation and custody (Clarke et al., 2005). Nonetheless, a majority of fathers in this study were determined to pursue visitation with their daughters despite these potential obstacles, while a few fathers indicated they wanted joint or full custody. Under these circumstances, it may be helpful for fathers and daughters, as well as professionals working with this dyad, to recognize that transitions such as incarceration and reentry are lengthy processes that can take years to work through, both individually and relationally. Professional services such as counseling and family therapy need to be accommodating and reflective of this process.

Conversely, a few fathers identified themselves as more on the periphery of their daughters' lives prior to incarceration. For these fathers, it seemed there was less optimism around the possibility of reconnecting with their daughters during reentry. This could be the result of not having a solid identity as a father prior to incarceration, having a conflicted relationship with their daughter's mother, and/or being unsure of how to relate to their daughters due to gender differences. For these fathers, there appeared to be a greater sense of hopelessness and passivity in continuing a relationship with their daughters despite their insistence that they wanted to be in their lives. The lack of motivation could be attributed to the dynamics surrounding reconnecting with daughters during reentry rather than a desire to not have a relationship with them at all. Paying special attention to fathers who are on the periphery of their daughters' lives may be even more critical, as there is a higher probability for incarceration to continue to separate these fathers even further from their daughters.


There are several limitations to this study. First, fathers in this study did not have lengthy sentences and therefore had opportunities for reconciliation with their daughters when they were released. For fathers who have life or longer-term sentences, it is possible that these narratives could be different. For the most part, the crimes committed were not considered heinous crimes, such as homicide or sexual assault, and therefore the stigma associated with why the father was incarcerated may not be as significant as it would be if it were a crime against another human being. This may allow for more opportunity for fathers to remain connected with their daughters during and after incarceration.

Cultural factors and variables were not explored in this study. Given historical and cultural trauma factors, particularly in relation to racial disparity in the criminal justice system, it would seem that examining this topic from a cultural standpoint may produce different results in terms of recollections around fathering (Jung, Spjeldnes, & Yamatani, 2010; Roh & Robinson, 2009). Finally, this study consisted of interviews with fathers who were recently released and had not been out of prison for a prolonged period of time. Narratives of fathers' experiences in the reentry process may be different if the fathers interviewed had been out of prison for several years or may actually be residing with their daughters again.

Implications for Future Research

Future research in this area needs to continue exploring the father-daughter relationship. Due to the dearth of fathers' narratives in existing research, implementing qualitative or mixed methods in future research to gain a deeper understanding of men's experiences would be helpful. In addition, this study did not have access to how the daughters felt about the relationships with their fathers. Fathers may remember events in a more positive light or recount experiences pertaining to incarceration differently than their daughters would. Interviewing daughters would be helpful to create a more balanced account of this phenomenon. Incorporating focus groups into research where men can process with each other as well as provide information on parenting during or after incarceration could also offer some unique insights into the collective experience of men. Interviewing fathers with various prison sentences as well as fathers who have been released for longer periods of time would supplement information on the phases of this experience throughout the lifespan. This speaks to the need for more longitudinal studies in the area of incarceration and reentry, particularly around fathering and child outcomes, to help strengthen programming and interventions to better assist families experiencing this phenomenon.

In summary, incarceration is a phenomenon that affects a substantial number of children and fathers in the United States. Although much more research is needed in this area, the findings in this study suggest that, despite the difficulties of incarceration and reentry, fathers still care about their daughters, want to protect them, and recognize that their incarceration may have negatively affected their daughters. Thus, investing more research and clinical practice in supporting and understanding this relationship may greatly contribute to the strengthening of this connection during a challenging time in the lives of families.

DOI: 10.3149/fth.1201.94


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* University of Minnesota.

Correspondence concerning this article should be sent to Holli M. Kelly-Trombley, Family Social Science Department, University of Minnesota, 290 McNeal hall, 1985 Buford Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55108. Email:
Table 1
Participant Demographic and Incarceration Information

Participant    Age    Ethnicity   charge

Joseph          32        W        FPF
Travis          41    AA,NA,H/L    FPF
Marcus          30       AA         DP
Charles         32        W        UDW
Ricardo         45       H/L        RA
Jason           45        W        FPF
Derrick         36       NA        FPF
Sammy           39       AA         BF
Reginald        37       AA         DP
Nathaniel       38       AA        TDA
Chris           37       AA        FPF
Shawn           34       AA         DP
Eric            37      AA,W       FPF

               Daughter     Years incarcerated
Participant      age      in daughter's lifetime

Joseph            6                 1
Travis            18                4
Marcus            12                5
Charles           5                 5
Ricardo           13                6
Jason             13                5
Derrick           11                6
Sammy             18                2
Reginald          18                10
Nathaniel         11                1
Chris             17                3
Shawn             14                2
Eric              7                 5

Notes. Participant: Fictitious names given to participants to
protect their identity; Ethnicity: W-White, AA-African American,
NA-Native American, H/L-Hispanic/Latino; Recent Charge: FPF-felon
in possession of firearm, DP-drug possession, UDW-use of deadly
weapon, RA-robbery/assault, BF-bank fraud, TDA-3rd degree assault.
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