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Children of Incarcerated Parents

The Allegheny County Department of Human Services (DHS), the Allegheny County Jail, Allegheny County Adult and Juvenile Probation, Allegheny County Correctional Health Services Inc., the Pittsburgh Youth Study team at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the Pittsburgh Child Guidance Foundation and others have worked hand-in-hand to identify areas in need of improvement and to relieve some of the strain on children associated with their parental relationship being disrupted by incarceration. Research conducted by the Pittsburgh Child Guidance Foundation and DHS has identified many areas that raise significant concerns.

Several changes have already taken place in response to the results of the research:

  • Systems Advocate – A Systems Advocate was hired in 2006 to address the needs and best interest of children of incarcerated parents through policy reform. The Advocate works with multiple county agencies, police departments, the District Attorney, the Public Defender, judges, service providers, community programs, and jail personnel to critically examine current policy and stimulate substantive changes aimed at mitigating the negative consequences of incarceration on children and their families. 
  • Family Activity Center – The area where children await a visit with their incarcerated parent has been made much more user friendly. The Family Activity Center is outfitted with colorful and comfortable furnishings, supplied with games and activities and staffed with professionals and volunteers who assist caregivers and children prior to visits.
  • Best-Practices Arrest Protocol – Research indicated that the trauma experienced by children who witness the arrest of their parent often has long-term effects. Efforts by stakeholders have resulted in a protocol that details how law enforcement officials identify and handle arrest situations when there is a child present. Trainings have been conducted.
  • The Director’s Action Line has been available since 1998 to register complaints The Jail Collaborative has continued to focus on improving circumstances for the children of incarcerated parents.

In 2010, the Jail Collaborative secured a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) grant totaling $499,000—in support of the Reentry Program and systems change. Using this grant, the Collaborative is working to improve the quality of visits and discharge as part of its overall plan to reduce recidivism at the County Jail with particular focus on reducing the strain/trauma faced by children who have a parent(s) in the jail. The County has made significant progress on this four-part plan.

Firstly, the Reentry Program calls for a reduction in the number of children who experience the re-incarceration of a parent. The process to achieve this goal centers around creating a strong reentry program that gives parents in the Jail the opportunity to develop the skills and gain the family support they need to successfully rebuild their lives. Elements of this reentry program include life skills and job readiness training, cognitive behavioral therapy and education.

The second objective is to strengthen the bonds between parents in the Jail and their children. Strategies used to meet this objective include conducting parenting classes, providing support to families in their communities, preparing families and children for visits, coaching inmates on how to have positive visits and linking families with supports within their communities.

Thirdly the plan aims to reduce the distress children experience because their parent is in Jail. The primary strategy to meet this goal is to improve the visiting system in the jail, along with the communication system for families. Steps include:

  • Improving face-to-face family contact visits. Structured family contact visits have become part of regular Jail operations for participants in family support reentry services;
  • Making weekly phone calls home available to reentry inmates;
  • Implementing a discharge center which allows families to be prepared for the release of - and to plan to pick up - their loved one; and
  • Instituting a hotline for concerned families who would like to check on the status of their family member in the Jail to alleviate the stress caused by an unanswered telephone after business hours.

Finally, work is being done to ensure that children and families are getting the tangible services and support they need. Family support specialists work with families to learn about their needs for housing, food, clothing, and other concrete services. Specialists respond by connecting families with a community base of support.

Other Family-focused Progress

In addition to the work being completed through the Jail reentry program, other developments for the families touched by arrest and incarceration are underway. By working toward a better understanding of incarcerated former foster youth, an effective protocol is being developed to reach them and address their needs. Also, beginning in July 2009, DAL Specialists began making bi-monthly visits to the Allegheny County Jail to attend pre-scheduled meetings with individual inmates who have active child-welfare cases to resolve issues concerning their children.