Five Years Later: Final Implementation Lessons from the Evaluation of Responsible Fatherhood, Marriage and Family Strengthening Grants for Incarcerated and Reentering Fathers and Their Partners. Keeping Participants Engaged


MFS-IP programs focused on delivering services to couples during a challenging time: incarceration and the immediate post-release period. Once couples enrolled in MFS-IP programming, staff worked hard to keep them involved.

Programs had to hold participants’ interest as they weathered strains in their romantic and co-parenting relationships; the overwhelming financial, emotional and schedule demands of low-income single parenthood (for women on the outside); and the urgency and upheaval of the time following the male partner’s release (for couples reuniting—or not—after the incarceration).

Those that succeeded in retaining participants in programming in the midst of an uncertain and difficult time evidenced three common characteristics. First, they brought realism about participants’ competing priorities and worked to make their programs accessible. Some designed shorter programs, such as one-weekend seminars, that were less challenging for participants (particularly female partners) to complete. Some offered make-up sessions, so that program interruptions could be overcome. Longer programs improved retention by offering participants incentives at regular intervals in recognition of the ongoing effort required to participate. Program staff at most agencies helped partners in the community to overcome major participation barriers such as lack of transportation, lack of child care, and facility access problems.

“If you could get it all done in the first few weeks, that would be great, but you can’t. [Female partners] have to go back to paying bills, and sometimes their situation is dictating that they can’t do [the program] anymore. 
                                        —former MFS-IP grantee (TN)

To truly engage participants, programs also had to show responsiveness to their expressed needs. Successful grantees demonstrated an understanding of the differing needs of their male and female participants, as well as changes in couples’ needs as they transitioned from incarceration to reentry. For example, one grantee offered male participants a course on “fathering during incarceration,” while providing female participants with tangible supports such as school uniforms for their children and help with the cost of transporting children to prison visitation. In an effort to demonstrate responsiveness and maintain trust, programs also solicited and listened to participant feedback and followed through on service delivery promises.

Among successful programs, responsiveness to participants was also evident in their choice of program services and curricula. Selecting or adapting curricula that spoke to participants’ specific concerns helped to reinforce the trust that participants had for the program. A focus on skills that were applicable to families separated by incarceration—such as letter writing, making good use of in-person visit time, or communicating with children about a father’s incarceration—drew strong interest from participants.[5] Successful programs also framed communication and conflict management skills in terms of their applicability to a variety of interpersonal situations beyond romantic relationships, such as parenting, employer-employee relationships, and interactions among incarcerated men.[6]

Finally, programs fostered strong participant retention by hiring staff who could readily build rapport with participants. Such individuals were not only competent at case management or curriculum delivery, but also capable of sharing their own experiences with incarceration or parenting, serving as role models, and making themselves available to participants outside of class time. In addition to building positive staff-client relationships, grantees also built rapport among participants by creating safe opportunities for them to share with one another during program activities, and facilitating connections outside of program time (such as through residence in a specialized program housing unit). Staff felt that these relationships encouraged retention and helped participants sustain the individual changes they were making as a result of program participation.

Although these operational strategies worked well during the male partner’s incarceration, most programs still reported immense difficulty in delivering services to couples after release. Many programs did not try to serve couples after release, but those who tried and succeeded had several common characteristics. First, they capitalized on a strong rapport with the incarcerated father, his partner, and sometimes other family members. Second, they provided family strengthening programming in the context of significant practical assistance with employment, housing and/or child support issues. Third, they included a focus on character development or religious faith that seemed to appeal to men interested in making a fresh start after release from prison. Finally, a few programs served men or couples on the outside but avoided the challenges of retaining them through the release transition. These programs enrolled men after release, rather than continuing services begun during the incarceration, and typically took advantage of existing groups of released men who were receiving services through a partner agency.

How Helpful Was Grantees’ Prior Organizational Experience?

Grantees’ efforts to achieve their implementation goals were heavily shaped by program design and the various operational strategies (described throughout this report) they used. However, some aspects of their pre-existing organizational capacity shaped implementation success as well.

  • Grantees that had previously collaborated with the organizational partners they needed for their MFS-IP programs had fewer start-up delays due to partnership challenges and fewer partnership-related service interruptions. Pre-existing partnerships helped these grantees to overcome bureaucratic obstacles to hiring program staff, navigate complex correctional facility environments, and meet OFA’s requirements for addressing domestic violence. 
  • Prior organizational experience delivering similar services gave grantees an advantage in understanding what was feasible, anticipating obstacles, and generating workable strategies for overcoming them.
  • Program leaders who brought prior experience with corrections culture had an easier time negotiating program activities and requirements within the constraints of institutional procedures.
  • Agencies familiar with implementing evidence-based interventions quickly grasped the need for balancing fidelity with flexibility. Grantees strove to implement curricula with fidelity and to maintain the integrity of their program designs, but—in the absence of true evidence-based practices for family strengthening work with justice-involved couples—they also had to make intelligent adaptations.
  • Past experience with multi-site service delivery helped grantees develop strong supervision and staffing approaches (e.g., “cross training” so staff could easily cover for one another) to maintain service continuity.

Though the factors above facilitated implementation success, a few exceptional grantees without extensive prior experience were also successful. Those that had not already built organizational capacity in the areas above compensated with very energetic and pro-active networking, as well as creative problem-solving in the face of obstacles that they had not anticipated.

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