Panel Paper: Waiting for Them to Come Home: A Review of the Literature on Promising Practices for Promoting Wellbeing and Self-Sufficiency Among Families Affected By Parental Incarceration

Friday, November 9, 2018
Tyler - Mezz Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Bright Sarfo1, Meghan McCormick2 and Emily Brennan2, (1)MEF Associates, (2)MDRC

The impact of parental incarceration on families and children is widespread. Individuals who have been incarcerated face a range of reentry challenges including finding stable employment, securing housing, reestablishing family and community ties, overcoming substance abuse and mental illness, and contending with low levels of education. Meanwhile, families with incarcerated parents face barriers associated with economic strain. Both younger and older children of incarcerated parents may be at risk for poor social-emotional, behavioral, and academic development over time. Moreover, younger children may exhibit symptoms associated with poor attachment such as anxiety and withdrawal. While studies have explored these outcomes associated with parental incarceration, few studies have explored approaches for promoting successful reunification between parents and their families during and after incarceration.

The authors of this study conducted a systematic literature review with two broad aims: 1) to provide a summary of recent studies documenting the unique barriers to reunification faced by incarcerated parents and their families and 2) to describe promising approaches and strategies to reduce barriers to reunification among current and formerly incarcerated parents.

To meet these aims, the authors systematically scanned databases to gather studies and reports on interventions, policies, and programs that address barriers to reunification for families affected by parental incarceration.

A review of the literature suggests that while a diverse array of programs have been designed and implemented to reduce barriers to reunification among incarcerated parents, there is opportunity for future work. Five common themes have been identified relating to family reunification:

  1. Co-parenting. A great majority of programs focus on the relationship between parents and their children while fewer programs targeted other relatives such as co-parents or other caregivers.
  2. Age of Child. Several programs promote attachment and contact between parents and especially younger children via in-person contact or alternative methods of communication using letter writing or digital technologies. Less attention is paid to approaches specific to older children.
  3. Incarcerated Mothers. Many programs focused on developing parental skills were created with men in mind. While focusing on healthy and supportive relationships during and after incarceration does seem important across gender lines, fewer programs have been designed with women’s unique circumstances in mind.
  4. Service Engagement. Engaging parents and their families affected by incarceration through family strengthening programming is challenging, particularly after a parent’s release from jail or prison.
  5. Financial self-sufficiency. Individuals who are incarcerated are challenged to maintain self-sufficiency during and after incarceration. Their families also face substantial financial burden due to the loss of household financial support and the cost of maintaining contact during incarceration.

Associated with each theme is the use of collaborative strategies across multiple systems – courts, correctional institutions, child welfare and community-based organizations – to reduce recidivism and promote reunification among families affected by incarceration.

Although there have been several studies demonstrating short term promising results among these diverse programs, few have been studied enough to demonstrate long-term efficacy to reduce barriers to reunification.