Some prison parenting programs involve children. These programs usually incorporate enhanced visitation and/or parent-child play activities, which may or may not be supervised by program staff (Adalist-Estrin, 1994; Brenner, 1999; Dunn & Arbuckle, 2002; Hughes & Harrison-Thompson, 2002; Jeffries et al., 2001; Landreth & Lobaugh, 1998). Such programs tend to be limited to fathers who have not committed serious institutional violations, are not sex offenders, and are not using substances (Dunn & Arbuckle, 2002). The goal of these programs is to improve the quality of father-child relationships by improving the atmosphere in which fathers and children interact. For instance, allowing fathers and children to have physical contact and play together in a child-friendly area is theorized to help them become more comfortable interacting (Dunn & Arbuckle, 2002). Also allowing fathers to have more private time interacting with their children may enable them to talk about sensitive issues and enhance their feelings of parental efficacy (Dunn & Arbuckle, 2002). A conceptual model of filial therapy suggests that supporting interactive child-centered play between fathers and children teaches fathers how to convey acceptance, empathy, and can help promote positive emotional bonds (Landreth & Lobaugh, 1998).
Preliminary evidence supports these approaches. For instance, fathers in the Living Interactive Family Education (LIFE) program, an enhanced visitation program in which fathers and children engage monthly in curricular and recreational activities together, reported in qualitative interviews and focus groups that the atmosphere of the program and the constructive parent-child interaction it promoted were important to program impacts. Participants also perceived improvement in their relationships and communication with their children, increased family unity, and development of life skills and improved behavior in their children (Dunn & Arbuckle, 2002). However, quantitative data measuring changes in such outcomes were not collected. In contrast, Landreth and Lobaugh (1998) examined the effects of a 10-week filial therapy program with incarcerated fathers in Texas using a randomized waitlist control design. Their evaluation with 32 fathers found significant differences between experimental and control participants with respect to their acceptance of the children, parenting stress, and children’s problem behaviors at post-test. Given that parenting programs in male-only prisons are less likely to offer enhanced child visitation than are programs in female-only prisons (Hughes & Harrison-Thompson, 2002), it will be important for future research to build on these evaluations in order to create support for the use of such services with fathers.
Evaluation results suggest that parenting classes can increase parental acceptance of children and reduce parenting stress and children’s acting out behavior.
Some family strengthening efforts focus solely on children of incarcerated parents. For instance, the Mentoring Children of Prisoners program was established by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2003 to make competitive grants to applicants serving urban, suburban, rural, or tribal populations with substantial numbers of children of incarcerated parents and to support the establishment and operation of mentoring programs. Projects funded under this program link children with mentors, incorporate the elements of Positive Youth Development, and partner with private business, nonprofit, community–based, state, and local entities to support and enhance mentoring programs. This may include connecting children and families to additional support services. Funding supports the recruitment, screening, and training of mentors; the identification of children; the matching of children with suitable adult mentors; and the support and monitoring of the mentoring relationship.
In addition to the 13 MFS-IP grants mentioned previously, the Office of Family Assistance within the Administration for Children and Families/HHS has funded additional programs that target incarcerated fathers and their children under the Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood Promotion provisions of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005. These programs enable fathers to improve their relationships and reconnect with their children, helping fathers overcome obstacles and barriers that often prevent them from being the most effective and nurturing parents possible.