Six Recommendations for Supporting Families Affected by Parental Incarceration: A Review of the Literature

Publication Date: October 13, 2021
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  • Published: 2021

Introduction

Research Questions

  1. What areas should family-strengthening programs address in their models explicitly?
  2. What programs and practices are currently being used to strengthen families involved with the justice system?

Over five million American children under 18 have had a parent jailed or incarcerated. Due to systematic inequalities rooted in policies and practices that affect the likelihood of being arrested, convicted, and incarcerated, Black and Latino children have been disproportionately affected. Parental incarceration has direct consequences for children and families. Family-strengthening programs seek to maintain and build healthy relationships between parents who are incarcerated and their children. They have the potential to reduce the harmful effects of incarceration on families. This brief describes opportunities to apply six recommendations for designing, developing, and implementing services, taken from a recent investigation of family-strengthening programs.

Purpose

This brief offers recommendations for programs designing and implementing family-strengthening program models, defined as programs that seek to maintain and build healthy relationships between parents who are incarcerated and their children. The recommendations are based on a recent investigation of such programs.

Key Findings and Highlights

Family strengthening programs can consider the following six recommendations for supporting families affected by parental incarceration:

(1) Engage caregivers who are not incarcerated. Programs working directly with children should engage caregivers from the beginning of the program and consider incentives and support specifically designed to promote caregivers’ participation in services.

(2) Consider children’s ages in program design. Programs should consider activities that are developmentally appropriate and tailored to support the specific ages and developmental stages of the children they serve.

(3) Consider the parent’s role in the child’s life. Programs working with parents who were the primary caregivers before incarceration could consider integrating counseling into their services for children who have been traumatized by the incarceration. Programs working with parents who were not the primary caregivers might need to connect with children’s current caregivers and develop a range of options for communication and visitation.

(4) Collaborate across systems. Programs should consider how to collaborate with various systems that a family may interact with, including correctional systems, child welfare systems (which respond in cases of alleged child abuse and neglect), and child support systems (which enforce orders to pay child support).

(5) Address barriers to program engagement. Programs in correctional facilities should consider institutional policies regarding duration of stay, transfers, lockdowns, or other procedures that may affect participation.

(6) Promote families’ financial stability. Programs could consider a variety of ways to promote the financial stability of the entire family, such as reducing the cost of visitation by providing transportation support or stipends to families, or by extending financial support or other services to a child’s nonincarcerated caregiver.

Methods

The recommendations presented in this brief are the culmination of a recent literature review of 59 programs, interviews with 10 experts from a range of disciplines including child development and criminology, visits to 6 organizations representing diverse intervention types and locations, and a meeting of 14 federal staff members and 6 program experts.

Citation

Brennan, Emily, Meghan McCormick, Bright Sarfo, and Michelle S. Manno. 2021. Six Recommendations for Supporting Families Affected by Parental Incarceration: A Review of the Literature. OPRE Report 2021-197. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.