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Focus on Fathers, in and out of Prison

SSW prof studies health issues for incarcerated dads

The importance of a father’s health to his family might seem obvious, but in the opinion of Marah Curtis, it is too often overlooked by public policy makers. An assistant professor at the School of Social Work, Curtis is particularly concerned with fathers who are in jail. “We know some diseases, such as TB, spread in an inmate community,” she says. “But there has not been much research looking at the physical and mental health of fathers upon release and the impact on their families.”

Curtis is focusing on these aspects as principal investigator of a one-year study funded by a New Connections Grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). She and a research assistant will analyze data drawn from the extensive Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, which followed nearly 5,000 children born in the United States between 1998 and 2000. Curtis is always guided by what she calls the so-what question: will her findings be useful? The fathers’ health project is designed to help develop social programs that better address the needs of families.

“These guys are vulnerable,” she says. Generally they leave prison with no health coverage; their job prospects are poor; the mothers of their children may not want to marry them or live with them. “You can’t just throw them out there,” says Curtis, “and expect families to function.”

Existing benefit programs often have conflicting or too-stringent requirements, such as being available only to single-parent households, that may force undesirable decisions, she says. A father may have to choose between buying medications for himself and food for his family. “And there isn’t much thought about housing, which is very important,” Curtis says.

“This matters to me, particularly because it affects children,” she says. And if she had not been awarded the $55,000 RWJF grant, which pays the salary of her research assistant and reduces her teaching load? There’s a lot of data to deal with, but, she says, “I would have gone ahead anyway, because the question is worth answering.”

Natalie McCracken can be reached at nmccrack@bu.edu