Saving Children with Incarcerated Parents
Monday, May 21st, 2018 @ 9:13AM
Dr. Angelique Day, an assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Social Work in Seattle, organized a congressional briefing Thursday in the Rayburn House Office Building in conjunction with the office of Congressman Danny Davis (D-IL-), the ranking member of the Human Resources subcommittee of the House Committee on Ways and Means. Experts who are busy at removing barriers—physical and psychological—separating incarcerated parents from their children shared accounts of their successes in helping mothers and fathers reconnect with their children. Connecting with their children often resulted in parents refraining from returning to prison and jail. Armed with rigorous findings from random controlled evaluations, they made their case for federal action on behalf of these children who are at significantly higher risk of poor outcomes, including being incarcerated.
According to a 2016 report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, more than 5 million children have had a parent behind bars. It is estimated that more than 1.5 million children currently have an incarcerated parent. Research has found that children with incarcerated parents have significantly poorer health and social outcomes than children whose parents were never behind bars. They have higher incidences of mental health problems, a greater likelihood of problems in school, and exposure to risk factors that may lead to involvement with the criminal justice system. Because of the disproportionate representation of people of color in the criminal justice system, black and Latino children face greater risks.
During the briefing, Dr. Joseph Tietz, executive director of Pathfinders of Oregon and a licensed psychologist, presented on the Parenting Inside Out (PIO) program that provides evidence-based skills training for parents involved in the criminal justice system. It is operating in 31 states and in four countries. A randomized trial found significant reductions in recidivism among parents in the program. Kristin Harrod, director of Reentry Services for the Kentucky Department of Corrections described successful programs in that state which has the highest rate of incarcerated parents, warning of the need to follow-up as new legislators are elected. Kimberly Mays, a mother of 10 children, told her traumatic story of being incarcerated more than 40 times and losing custody of her children. She has since turned her life around, earning a Master’s in Public Administration degree and now is employed with the Washington State Office of Public Defense (OPD) Parents Representation Program assisting families involved with the criminal justice system.
Rep. Davis plans to take these ideas and create legislation to bring relief to children of incarcerated parents and their caregivers. He is no stranger to trying to mitigate the impact of mass incarceration that has wreaked havoc on countless American families. In 2007, he was the primary sponsor of the Second Chance Act, signed into law by President George Bush, to provide resources to men and women leaving prison to reduce high rates of recidivism. Each year more than 650,000 women and men leave prison to return home facing scant opportunities for employment and finding decent housing. Many spend long years behind bars for nonviolent crimes, mostly associated with possessing or selling drugs. Every Father’s Day Rep. Davis brings dozens of children to visit their incarcerated fathers. This new legislation is inspired by those encounters. Legislation pertaining to the public assistance provisions of the Social Security Act including child welfare, is in the purview of the Human Resources Subcommittee.
Thursday’s briefing was the culmination of Dr. Day’s academic year-long fellowship in Rep. Danny Davis’s office supported by the Society for Research in Child Development. She will be back on the Hill this Wednesday after successfully pitching an idea for a briefing on kinship care to Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA-37). Congresswoman Bass, a social worker with an M.S.W. from the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, is the founder and co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth. The briefing will focus on kinship care in the Family First Prevention Services Act passed in February as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018. As a member of the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Bass will also be exploring the issue of children with incarcerated parents from the perspective of prisons being accountable.
Criminal justice reform is getting much needed attention despite Attorney General Jeff Sessions putting the brakes on sentencing reform. On Friday, senior White House advisor Jared Kushner joined commentator Van Jones at a White House forum supporting a prison reform bill, the First Step Act which passed the Judiciary with a bipartisan vote of 25-5. The event was attended by Florida State University School of Social Work associate professor Dr. Carrie Pettus-Davis, co-lead of the 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work Smart Decarceration network, who received a $1 million grant for research on prisoner reentry. The bill is seen as a step in the right direction but has several prominent detractors who are refusing to sign on without a component addressing sentencing reform.