Parenting from Prison: Innovative Programs to Support Incarcerated and Reentering Fathers. What Do Fathers Need to Know? Curriculum Choices for Parenting Skills

04/30/2010

Parenting program content must be perceived as salient and relevant for fathers to stay engaged. Grantees selected a wide variety of parenting curricula for use with the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated fathers they served; however, the curricula generally included a core set of common topics, such as

  • the importance of father involvement,
  • communication with children and other family members,
  • child development,
  • discipline techniques, and
  • anger management.

One of the greatest challenges MFS-IP grantees encountered was identifying parenting skills curricula that addressed the unique issues shaping parenting for men involved in the correctional system. Most MFS-IP grantees used commercially available parenting courses that were not specifically developed for use with a justice-involved population. Grantees using such curricula often made modifications to ensure sensitivity to issues of incarcerated men. For instance, the New Jersey Department of Corrections adapted Active Parenting Now for use in joint classes with incarcerated fathers and their co-parents. Based on the psychological theories of Alfred Adler, the course emphasizes the importance of encouragement and authoritative (as opposed to autocratic or permissive) parenting. It is aimed at cultivating childrens self-esteem, cooperation, and responsibility; topics include recognizing the goals of behavior, natural and logical consequences, family meetings, power struggles and problem-solving skills, encouragement, and stimulating independence. The Council on Crime and Justice (Minnesota) developed an adapted version of Families in Focus a curriculum designed to support positive social and behavioral development among children identified as high risk for use with incarcerated fathers and their families.

Some grantees implemented commercially available curricula without making major adaptations. 24/7 Dads, used by the Indiana Department of Correction and the Shelby County Division of Corrections (Tennessee), aims to help men develop the attitudes, knowledge, and skills they need to get and stay involved with their children. Key topics include handling and expressing emotion, masculinity, and discipline. The program also guides men through the process of evaluating their own parenting skills and fathering role models. Love and Logic, chosen by the Oakland Livingston Human Service Agency (Michigan) for use with men on community supervision and their partners, trains parents in techniques to set clear limits, help children learn from their mistakes, and share control by offering small choices.

Two grantees chose curricula specifically designed for incarcerated fathers. InsideOut Dad is a fatherhood reentry program used by the Maryland Department of Human Resources and the Shelby County Division of Corrections (Tennessee) to connect incarcerated fathers with their families in preparation for release. Topics include emotional self-management, communication, and fathering while incarcerated. Long Distance Dads, taught in state prisons by Lutheran Social Services of South Dakota, assists incarcerated men in becoming more involved and supportive fathers. Adaptable to a variety of institutional time schedules, the curriculum focuses on universal aspects of fatherhood as well as unique challenges facing incarcerated fathers, such as fulfilling parenting responsibilities while confined, parenting upon release, and understanding the effects of incarceration on families.

Evaluating Parenting Curriculum Effectiveness
The effectiveness of parent education curricula remains an empirical question. To date, few experimental or quasi-experimental studies have examined parenting outcomes among participants in such classes. Most evaluations have used single-group or unmatched comparison group designs, which compare participants questionnaire responses before and after a parenting course. These studies measure whether parenting knowledge improved, but do not allow any conclusions to be drawn regarding whether gains in knowledge were due to participation in the course, whether such gains were sustained, or whether the knowledge gains were associated with improvements in parenting behavior.

Active Parenting Now, used by the New Jersey Department of Corrections, represents an exception. In a quasi-experimental study, participants in the program demonstrated higher family cohesion, less family conflict, and higher self-esteem relative to a comparison group of nonparticipants (Abbey, Pilgrim, Hendrickson, & Buresh, 2000; Abbey, Pilgrim, Hendrickson, & Lorenz, 1998). The curriculum was accorded evidence-based status by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Finally, four grantees implemented original, in-house parenting curricula as part of their MFS-IPfunded work. Keeping FAITH, developed by the RIDGE Project (Ohio) founders, focuses on teaching men how to father from inside prison. Special topics include giving advice to children without being controlling and coping with children who have difficulty communicating. Back to the Family, developed by Centerforce (California) and APPLE FamilyWorks with extensive input from incarcerated fathers, includes modules on child development, communication styles, co-parenting relationships, and rebuilding trust with children and their caregivers. Child and Family Services of New Hampshire, working in close partnership with the New Hampshire Department of Corrections, designed Fathers Connecting with Children to meet the specific needs of fathers within 2 years of release. The course guides participants in working through a set of parenting scenarios designed to prepare them for reuniting with their children. The Osborne Association (New York) collaborated with incarcerated fathers and academic experts in the field of incarceration and parenting to create its 16-week Basic Parenting curriculum, which supports men in parenting effectively from prison regardless of the length of their incarceration.

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