A hard look at what prison means for the kids left behind
One in every 14 children in the U.S. has had a parent in prison. For poor families, it’s one in eight. They are the collateral damage of a mass incarceration movement that has made the U.S. the nation with the most prisoners in the world.
For the past nine years, it’s been the job of Aileen Keays Yeager to figure out what that means for children in Connecticut.
She is project manager for the Children with Incarcerated Parents Initiative at the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy at Central Connecticut State University. Since its inception in 2008, she had administered funding for non-profits that serve these children, then studied to see what works.
Yes. The federal government was providing funding for mentoring children of incarcerated parents. One of the recipients was Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters. The feds suddenly pulled their funding nationwide, without any warning. And so Nutmeg approached the General Assembly and said we just lost funding. Will you supplement the funding? The General Assembly recognized their lack of knowledge, to their credit, about whether mentoring helps kids with incarcerated parents.
So they approached Andrew Clark, my supervisor at the IMRPP. When Andrew first received the funding he pulled together a team of faculty and community members and staff at the university to look into what helps children. And that’s when they realized that there wasn’t information out there about what types of services help children, and there wasn’t evidence necessarily demonstrating that mentoring was a positive intervention for kids.
So what did you learn? What were the early findings?
We put out a broad RFP that really was just to provide supportive services for children with incarcerated parents and family members. We received diverse proposals. We ended up awarding Families in Crisis in Hartford to provide in-home counseling case management services for kids, and we ended up awarding Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters to provide their mentoring program. What we liked is that they were asking for the same amount of money. So, I thought, well, this is great. This offers a great comparison for us. Same time frame. Same population.
You had an experiment.
We had an experiment. What we found was that some counseling case management did show benefits — problems decreased, strengths increased. With Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters, the mentoring provider, the strengths actually decreased over time from intake to seven months. So you know we can’t make broad generalizations that mentoring in and of itself doesn’t work with children with incarcerated parents, but we were able to conclude that at that time how it was being delivered to children was not showing the positive outcome.
[A response from Big Brothers Big Sisters is at the bottom of the Q&A.]
What were you measuring when you said there was ‘a decrease?’
Strengths. We use the BERS behavioral and emotional rating scale, which includes seven sub-scales within it.
What do you think happened? Why wasn’t the mentoring effective?
This has not been tested. There’s one or two theories that I have about it. We learned maybe about a year into the program, maybe a little more, that Nutmeg had decided to make a programmatic decision to not tell potential mentors that there was an incarcerated parent in the family. Their reasoning was valid. They were concerned that potential mentors wouldn’t accept the match if they knew that there was a family member in prison.
My concern, of course, is that there is so much stigma and silence surrounding having a loved one in prison that, for one, you’re sending somebody to a family that has a secret. And this could set up a relationship where the child doesn’t know if they can reveal the secret, if it’s safe, if the mentor will still like them and still want to come and see them. It also doesn’t prepare the mentor to know what they may be coming into, what the family is experiencing and therefore how to best support them. They’re not given tools and strategies for supporting the family. So that’s a theory that I have.
What we’re looking at doing now is we just signed a contract with a new mentoring provider where we want the mentoring program to be designed specifically for children with incarcerated parents that works with the family and not just the child, and it’s really helping to strengthen the family. The program is CLICC — Connecting through Literacy: Incarcerated parents, their Children and Caregivers.
What is it like for you to be in this position where you know you’re not just this nice lady who provides funding. You’re evaluating. You’re demanding data. You want to see results. What’s the give and take like?
It’s very difficult. I do just kind of want to be the nice person that cares so much about these children and their families and that wants to work positively with the providers. But there are a lot of challenges in contract monitoring. One thing that happens repeatedly is a provider creates this beautiful program design, and we get all excited for the model. And they try and implement it. And nothing goes as planned, which now we just expect. But how you adapt to that is really important.
You just participated at a conference on “Reimagining Justice,” where part of the discussion was about how strengthening and maintaining children’s relationships with incarcerated parents can lower recidivism, that it’s good for the inmates as well as the children. So do you study that as well or is your focus really on the children?
Our primary focus, we’re definitely child centered. Our primary focus is on the children, although we certainly understand and recognize that if there’s a reduction in recidivism then that’s going to help the children, because their parent isn’t cycling in and out.
What have you studied and what have you learned about the visiting environment at prisons?
Child-friendly visitation is really important for kids, and that means physical appearance is a little softer. Ideally having toys, having books, something that they can focus on and play with it so that they don’t end up misbehaving, simply because they’re a 3-year-old and you’re giving them nothing to stimulate them. In Connecticut our contact visits, after you give a brief hug and kiss at the beginning, you have to sit across a table from the person you’re visiting and not cross this invisible or this actual line in the center of the table.
Visiting is essential for most families. It lets kids know that their parent is safe because they fear for their safety. It lets them really understand that their parent still loves them and cares for them, wants to be involved in their life. And it helps with maintaining attachment. And studies have shown the dangers of attachment disruption at different ages through development. The other thing with visitation I hear most is about how the corrections officers treat the kids. It may be overt behavior. But it also can be the demeanor. Other countries have been able to have softer uniforms. I think that is a stretch for us right now. And I think that a lot of times the COs aren’t aware of how their tone and how they are standing can affect them.
So is that true even at York, the Connecticut prison for women?
Contact is the same. I guess there are now some toys and some books there for kids. So I actually wanted to do a tour. I missed one about two months ago. But York has now implemented some child-friendly visiting components, which I think is excellent and is a great first step. And I hope that it’s used almost as a pilot so that then they can say, OK we’re not seeing this amazing increase in contraband within the facilities now that we allow toys and books. So let’s try this in other facilities.
And with the men?
We recognize that children whose mom is removed from them must be suffering and can benefit from having the softer environment, and that an incarcerated mom may be less dangerous to her child. We still have a lot of biases that incarcerated fathers and male caregivers, whether they are the biological father or not, the devastation will not be as great, particularly if they’re a caregiver and not the biological father and that maybe it’s even better for the child that they’re separated from each other.
We did a study maybe two years ago now at the New Britain courthouse where we interviewed people that were at the prison for their arraignment. One of the findings that I loved about it was it showed just how involved male caregivers were that were not legal guardians, maybe didn’t live with the children, but they were providing at least three types of support every week to children.
Is there place in the U.S. that the Institute has looked at or you are aware of that is model for the best visiting environment?
Right next door. Maximum-security facilities. I’ve toured twice now at Sing Sing and Bedford Hills. Sing Sing’s a maximum-security male facility. Bedford Hills a maximum-security female facility. Their visitation is full contact, meaning throughout the whole visit, they could sit next to each other. They could hold hands. The parents can hold children. When I was sitting there during one of the visits, this young man who was the inmate comes up and greets the woman, takes the little tiny baby, puts the baby on his shoulder, turns his back to the COs and just walks to a back table, chooses his own table and sits down and is just holding and cradling this baby throughout the visit.
Both of them, Sing Sing and Bedford Hills, have children’s rooms in the visiting area. Once you enter, that room looks like a daycare. And at Sing Sing, the floor is all those rubber tiles. And it has that tiny table with the tiny chairs that no human adult could sit in. It’s just filled with toys and books, and in both of the facilities there’s no CO in that little children’s room. There are windows, so the COs can certainly look, but there’s no one in uniform that is hovering over you in that kind of dominating way. And in both facilities the incarcerated parent can get on the floor with the kids and play. It’s much more natural.
Did you get any feedback from the correction department in New York as to what they have observed about the inmates?
They say behaviors of the incarcerated parent improves significantly. Bedford Hills, there was also a nursery. It’s the oldest nursery in the country.
It’s for women giving birth while incarcerated?
They can keep the child with them up to 18 months.
Have you seen changes as far as how the public responds to this subject?
I have seen it change over the years in terms of awareness and appreciation of what children must be going through. I have definitely seen a huge change. When we first started looking at this, if you mentioned children with incarcerated parents, you had to repeat it, because they weren’t even quite grasping the phrase and what that meant. And then ‘Oh my gosh, I never thought about kids that are left behind.’ You know these were children that were absolutely in the shadows. Now there is a greater awareness that they exist, but not necessarily what they’re going through. And not certainly how to best support it. Well, it has improved.
You backed legislation this year that would have required judges to consider a family impact statement in sentencing. It was defeated in the House with only one Republican vote. What is the point of that impact statement?
It’s to help, to empower the judge with all of the information that’s relevant, so they can make the best decision not just for that defendant, but for the community at large. There is not still a great awareness about collateral consequences in general, but also extending that to the children and how the children can be affected. And so allowing that judge to just have an enhanced awareness of whether there is a child in this scenario.
It’s really just providing information. There’s certainly no mandate that they can modify their decision in any way.
Why is this important?
With children we now know that the consequences can be lifetime health consequences — learning disabilities, developmental delays, speech and language problems, early death, obesity later on in your life as an adult from the separation from parents when you are a child.
What do you say to people who ask why it’s important for society to help these families, where, quite frankly, someone has screwed up?
If we serve the parent well, we serve the child well. And that enhances public safety. Maintaining the relationships between them during incarceration in a meaningful way reduces recidivism, which means it reduces likelihood of further crime and incarceration. It’s also financially responsible. By investing in children now and by reducing the harm that can be imposed on them because of the separation from their parent, we are potentially reducing future costs of a child, a young adult and then an adult who has developmental changes because they were separated from their parent while they were a child.
Parental incarceration is identified as an adverse childhood experience by the Centers for Disease Control, which means that it’s been identified as one of the top 10 childhood experiences that can lead to long-term negative health consequences. You know it could be reduced productivity which is you know maybe then you’re more likely and probably more likely to require some government assistance. If you’re not doing well on health and well-being, you’re not going to be as productive as a member of your community.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Andy Fleischmann, the president of Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters, responded.
While I have great respect for both Aileen Keays Yeager and the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy, I’m disappointed that, in her interview, she makes it sound as if the Institute conducted “an experiment” that allowed her to draw conclusions about the efficacy of mentoring compared to other interventions. In fact, when I sent the Institute’s findings to an expert, Professor Michael Karcher, professor of educational psychology at UT and a national leader of research into mentoring, he sent both me and Aileen comments indicating the Institute’s work involved far too few individuals, and treatment groups that were far too different from each other demographically, for anyone to draw any conclusions or inferences about the efficacy of the different interventions.
Despite Dr. Karcher’s very clear debunking of the Institute’s effort to draw conclusions from insufficient and misleading data, the Institute chose to start funding other interventions, and, as a new leader of Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters, I chose not to dispute that decision, though I viewed it as lacking a proper foundation. I would ill serve the terrific children of incarcerated parents, and the Big Brothers and Sisters who mentor them, however, were I not to set the record straight. For a review of the current academic literature showing what we do know about the impacts of mentors on children of incarcerated parents, I encourage folks to visit http://www.nationalmentoringresourcecenter.org/index.php/what-works-in-mentoring/model-and-population-reviews.html?id=127 While there’s more work to be done, “available research suggests that program-arranged mentoring has the capacity to contribute to observable improvements for children of incarcerated parents in their behavior, relationships, and their emotional well-being.”
Aileen Keays Yeager’s response to Fleischmann:
We wish to provide clarity on our evaluation of mentoring services (report available at http://www.ccsu.edu/imrp/projects/files/CIPEvaluationofMentoringandCounselingCaseManagement3.pdf). To do so, we wish to make two points. First, we acknowledge that our study had limitations – as all research does. Our final report took into account feedback from several experts, including Dr. Karcher. Second, in judging our conclusions it is instructive to read the summaries of research at the link provided in the Addendum:http://www.nationalmentoringresourcecenter.org/index.php/what-works-in-mentoring/model-and-population-reviews.html?id=127. The author, Dr. G. Robert Jarjoura, reviews several studies evaluating mentoring for children with incarcerated parents, and by and large the studies do not show positive results. A study by ICF International with positive results is the exception, but the bulk of the research is consistent with our findings. Nevertheless, we see potential for mentoring and agree with Dr. Jarjoura’s conclusion that it “has the capacity to” provide benefits for this vulnerable population. Dr. Jarjoura mentions programmatic elements that may be helpful to children, such as training mentors in the unique challenges around incarceration, and assisting children in maintaining contact with the incarcerated parent. We support efforts to identify and develop best practices in this emerging field of study.
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