Support Children of Incarcerated Parents by Supporting Their Caregivers

Approximately 2.7 million children have at least one parent in prison. While fathers are historically more likely than mothers to be incarcerated, the number of children under eighteen with an incarcerated mother doubled between 1991 and 2007. As a result, more and more children are raised by an alternate caregiver, often a grandmother or other family member.

Despite research showing children of incarcerated parents (CIPs) are at greater risk of antisocial behavior and future incarceration, policy makers have not focused on supporting their alternate caregivers. Caregivers may struggle with nurturing CIPs who are often traumatized by losing a parent to jail. Caregivers are also often CIPs’ grandparents and are more likely to experience health problems and social isolation that can hamper caring for younger children. An October 2013 Family Relations article, “Strengthening Incarcerated Families: Evaluating a Pilot Program for Children of Incarcerated Parents and Their Caregivers,” shows that supporting caregivers through an intervention program was associated with a self-reported increase in family cohesion and positive caregiving.

In the Family Relations paper, Alison L. Miller, a professor at the University of Michigan and the paper’s lead author, studies a community-based non-profit as it pilots a family-based intervention called the Strengthening Families Program (SFP). Originally developed for families of substance-abusing parents, SFP was adapted for CIPs and their caregivers for the first time in this study. The non-profit, Motherly Intercession, recruited families from the county jail to attend weekly sessions of SFP for sixteen weeks.

In the sessions, caregivers were trained in clear communication, discipline, stress management, problem solving, boundaries, and substance abuse awareness. Children were trained in identifying and expressing emotions, managing conflict, setting goals, problem solving, obeying rules, and practicing social skills. The program provided transportation, early childhood care, a meal for participants, and incentives for participating. On average, caregiver attendance was 82 percent. Caregivers reported enjoying the program, particularly valuing the ability to talk with other caregivers and discuss discipline, communication, and stress management with the group leaders.

Four months after the program’s end, caregivers reported several improved family and caregiver outcomes. Family strength, organization, cohesion (“we go over schedules, chores, and rules together”) increased. Caregivers reported an increase in positive caregiving (“I am loving and affectionate with this child”) and a decrease in their depression. Sixty-eight percent of caregivers’ responses before the program fell in the clinical depression range, but only 36 percent remained there four months after the program. Children showed a decrease in overt aggression and criminal behavior that was sustained at the follow-up, which is encouraging as these behaviors are closely associated with future trouble with the law.

Despite these successes, not all results from the study were positive. Unfortunately, family conflict, which had decreased by the end of the program, had increased by the follow-up survey, indicating the positive role that attendance itself had in caregivers’ and families’ lives. The researchers also did not see a significant change in caregiver stress, perceived support from others, or child outcomes such as internalizing behaviors, concentration, and family involvement.

Miller’s research suggests that a four-month intervention for caregivers of CIPs can have positive outcomes for caregivers and their parenting that endure after the program has ended. These results should encourage the creation of stronger lines of communication between jail personnel and community organizations. For instance, CIPs may benefit from a protocol for jail personnel such that when informing a family that a parent has been incarcerated, they are also able to direct caregivers to community organizations that offer interventions such as the SFP. Using the findings from this research, policymakers can ensure that caregivers and CIPs are supported during difficult times associated with a parent’s incarceration.

Article Source: Alison L. Miller, Jamie Perryman, Lara Markovitz, et al., “Strengthening Incarcerated Families: Evaluating a Pilot Program for Children of Incarcerated Parents and Their Caregivers,” Family Relations 62, No. 4 (Oct 2013): 584-96.

Feature photo: cc/(Pensiero)

misuzums@uchicago.edu'
Misuzu Schexnider
Misuzu Schexnider is a Child and Family Policy staff writer for the Chicago Policy Review and is a an MPP student at the Harris School of Public Policy. She is interested in social inequalities, their effects on the education system, and how faith communities can be more involved in the policy process.

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