In addition to classroom-based parenting education, many MFS-IP programs supported parents direct involvement with their children. Separation is a central challenge for children of incarcerated fathers, who are typically away from the confined parent much longer than children of incarcerated mothers (Parke & Clarke-Stewart, 2003). Researchers have proposed that quality and frequency of parent-child contact during the incarceration might moderate negative child outcomes (Arditti, 2005; Johnson, 2006; Poehlmann, 2005). Initial findings suggest greater compliance with child support post-release, lower parenting stress, and more adaptive child behavior after visitation between a child and an incarcerated father (Landreth & Lobaugh, 1998).
Still, incarcerated fathers appear less likely than incarcerated mothers to maintain contact with their children (Hairston, Rollin, & Jo, 2004). An analysis by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 30% of fathers incarcerated in state prisons had some form of contact with their children every week (most often by mail), whereas 22% had never had any contact with their children during their incarceration. Fifty-nine percent of fathers in state prisons reported that they had never had a personal visit with their children during their incarceration (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008). Likewise, Day, Acock, Bahr, and Arditti (2005) estimated that two-thirds of fathers never participated in a personal visit with their children while incarcerated.
Fathers in the MFS-IP longitudinal impact study report various types and degrees of contact with their children. Exhibit 2 describes preliminary frequencies of personal visits, telephone calls, and mail communication. These statistics are based on baseline data from 548 incarcerated fathers and their 548 spouses or committed partners, representing 35.2% of the total couples whom researchers plan to recruit during 3 years of baseline enrollment. The majority of fathers did report contact with their children through mail and telephone, although most did not receive visitation. Frequency of current contact varied widely by study site, particularly for personal visits: for example, 20% of incarcerated fathers in Minnesota reported receiving personal visits from their children, compared with 71% of fathers in New York. Research documents numerous barriers to parent-child contact during incarceration, including transportation issues and distance to the prison, caregiver work schedules, the high cost of telephone calls, and unfriendly visitation practices at correctional facilities (Hairston, 2001). In our study, the top barriers to contact reported by fathers were that the distance to the prison (or other transportation issues) made it difficult for the childrens caregivers to bring them for visits, and telephone calls were too expensive or telephone access was lacking.
Frequency of Father-Child Contact
Among Participants in the MFS Impact Study
|Ever talks on the phone with child
|Ever sends mail to child
|Ever receives mail from child
|Ever receives photos of child
|Ever receives personal visits from child
As discussed below, MFS-IP staff helped participants to navigate successful visitation with their children by providing logistical support, offering enhanced visitation venues for families, and guiding parents in structured parent-child activities. Such program components were intended to facilitate visitation and to improve the atmosphere in which fathers and children interacted.
Families seeking to maintain contact during a fathers incarceration encounter bureaucratic and practical challenges. First, they must comply with all correctional facility requirements governing child visitation. For the incarcerated parent, this typically includes requesting that the child and caregiver be added to approved visitor logs as well as avoiding personal disciplinary violations. For the visiting co-parent, this includes submitting all visitor documentation required for admittance and passing background checks (sometimes impossible for partners or co-parents with a criminal history). Second, families must make logistical arrangements for the visit, including planning a trip during approved visiting hours, arranging transportation, securing child care for any nonvisiting children, and obtaining food and other supplies for travel and time at the correctional facility. To assist with these challenges, MFS-IP grantees have implemented several innovative strategies. For example, MFS-IPfunded case managers working in the New Jersey Department of Corrections supported parents in navigating the hurdles that might otherwise prevent them from bringing children for visits with their fathers. Case managers worked individually with each family, contacting co-parents or caregivers to help them make arrangements for visitation and to assist them in obtaining and submitting the documentation required by facilities in order to bring a child for visitation. Other grantees, such as the Council on Crime and Justice (Minnesota) and the RIDGE Project (Ohio), supported visitation by defraying the cost of prison visits for children and their caregivers.
Defraying the Cost of Visitation:
The RIDGE Project (Defiance, OH)
|The RIDGE Project offered visitation support to its participants as a way of rewarding attendance at parenting and relationship education classes and encouraging family communication and contact. The program reimbursed co-parents who participated in family strengthening services for transportation and food expenses associated with prison visitation, up to a maximum of $50 per co-parent.
Staff at various grantee agencies asserted that the creation of special visitation areas facilitated easier, less strained interactions between incarcerated parents and their children. Unlike traditional prison visitation areas, child-friendly visitation centers may be furnished with toys, child-sized furniture, and playful, inviting décor. Efforts to create such centers can be hindered by facility policies and regulations: driven by security needs, correctional administrators typically restrict which areas of the facilities can accommodate visits and what kinds of activities are allowable. To build successful visitation programs, grantees worked closely with facility staff to address these security concerns and identify available space. Unlike other program components that required scheduled use of a shared space, child-friendly visitation required the identification and alteration of a dedicated space within the facility to be used solely for that purpose. For this reason, the successful start-up of a child-friendly visitation component typically required extensive facility buy-in. Parenting programs run from within the correctional system or by nonprofit agencies with very strong, long-term relationships with the correctional system were more likely to successfully create and manage such operations, including the Osborne Association (New York), Child and Family Services of New Hampshire/New Hampshire Department of Corrections, and the Shelby County Division of Corrections (Tennessee). Such extensive efforts were not always necessary, however, to take small steps toward comfortable accommodations for children. For example, the New Jersey Department of Corrections helped make it possible for co-parents to bring their children with them to facility-based parenting classes by obtaining childrens books and coloring supplies for the rooms in which courses were conducted.
Structured Visitation Activities
Three MFS-IP programs, the Osborne Association (New York), Child and Family Services of New Hampshire/New Hampshire Department of Corrections, and the Shelby County Division of Corrections (Tennessee), used parent-child visitation as an opportunity to actively support participants in cultivating new parenting skills. These semi-structured efforts included providing family meals, marking holidays and birthdays with special activities, conducting joint skills-building activities with fathers and children, and devoting parts of visitation time to group conversations or games. In addition, the Osborne Association hired graduates of their correctional facilitybased parenting classes to staff their child-friendly visitation areas. These men served as informal mentors, available to answer questions from other fathers or visiting children and to encourage positive parent-child interaction.
Supporting Parenting Skills in Action:
The Osborne Association (Brooklyn, NY)
|The Osborne Association worked with correctional facility administrators to establish Childrens Centers at several New York State prisons. At these specially equipped centers, parents and children could participate together in skills-building sessions. The 1530 minute semi-structured sessions offered by Osborne allowed fathers to practice the parenting skills they learned in the agencys parenting course, interact directly with their children, and receive feedback and parenting support from experienced fathers.
The Shelby County Division of Corrections (Tennessee) reported combining one-on-one and group activities for fathers and their children with concurrent activities for co-parents or caregivers (see schedule at right). Families were invited to participate in these special visits approximately once a week from the time the family enrolled in programming until the fathers release. In addition to these semi-structured activities, the program offered each family up to two family group conferencing sessions facilitated by a program staff member. During these highly structured sessions, incarcerated participants could meet with significant family members such as their parents, spouses or romantic partners, and co-parents of their children to discuss expectations, fears, and hopes related to reentry, according to a predetermined list of important life domains. Implemented by other grantees in slightly different formats (including long-distance videoconference), these structured conversations provided an opportunity for families to overcome fears, generate realistic expectations, and plan collaboratively for a successful return to the community.
Involving Co-parents and Caregivers:
Shelby County Division of Corrections (Memphis, TN)
|A typical child-friendly visit lasted up to three hours and included the following activities for fathers, children, and co-parents in the prisons dedicated child-friendly visitation area:
- A 30-minute dinner provided by the program for fathers, co-parents, and their children;
- An optional relationship education class offered jointly to fathers and co-parents, during which visiting children engaged in supervised play activities with program staff; and
- Up to 90 minutes of father-child visitation, during which co-parents participated in activities in an adjacent room, such as guest lectures on domestic violence and literacy from community advocates.