Common characteristics were evident among grantees that succeeded in meeting their enrollment targets. Typically successful agencies brought a deep understanding of the needs of the target populationand the corrections environment based on prior work, input from the target population, and the personal life experience of program staff. They designed programs to meet the needs of the target population and service environment. And they involved dynamic program representatives, sometimes including program graduates or formerly incarcerated persons, who built a strong reputation for the program. In addition, tangible side benefits to participation, such as more frequent or better-quality visitation time with partners or children, helped engage fathers and their partners. Other aspects of program design that seemed to facilitate meeting enrollment targets included serving multiple prison facilities; requiring a modest time commitment from partners, rather than frequent or intensive involvement over a long period of time; and using the broadest possible eligibility criteria, within the OFA requirements, to create the largest pool from which to recruit. Even with the strongest organizational capacity and program design, engaging this target population in couples-based work required immense persistence and flexibility.
Grantees learned early that many of the couples they aimed to serve had very tenuous or strained relationships, which made both male and female partners reluctant to enroll in relationship-strengthening programming. This barrier was never fully overcome, but staff addressed it by 1) emphasizing the benefits of program participation to the couple’s children rather than the benefits to the couple’s romantic relationship or marriage, and 2) encouraging skeptical female partners by suggesting that relationship skills improvement would be useful in co-parenting regardless of the whether they continued a romantic relationship with the incarcerated father.
As the MFS-IP initiative moved into its fourth and fifth years, word of mouth sometimes spread about programs among incarcerated men and partners in the community and reduced some of the recruitment challenges that plagued sites earlier in their implementation. Hearing positive things about the programs from peers, and seeing other men spending time with their partners or children during program activities, was a tremendous boost to grantees’ recruitment efforts (though not something they could control directly).