UW News

October 28, 2015

UW team to lead research efforts on initiative for incarcerated parents

News and Information

The University of Washington will play a key role in a new initiative aimed at helping inmates with children transition back into society, be successful parents and partners and remain out of prison.

Partners for Our Children, a UW School of Social Work center that works to improve the lives of vulnerable children and families in Washington state, will conduct research and evaluate programs offered under the five-year, $7.5 million initiative.

“Incarceration doesn’t just impact offenders. It has deep impacts on their children too,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a release. “Helping these parents build and maintain a bond with their child can change the course of their lives for the better.”

The Washington Department of Corrections received funding for the initiative from the federal Administration for Children and Families. The effort will bring together a variety of services, including parenting courses before and after release from prison, video and in-person family visits, courses on developing and maintaining healthy relationships with a spouse or partner, and family counseling. Participants will also take a job-search skills program before being released, and outreach workers will help connect them with employment and education services outside of prison.

Mark Eddy, director of research at Partners for our Children, said many inmates face a host of challenges upon release, including finding a place to live, landing a job and reconnecting with family, as well as avoiding substance use and friends involved in crime. An estimated 60 to 70 percent are parents, he said, and may have had little contact with their children while in prison.

“Serving time in prison and being out in the community require very different skills. When folks are in prison, surviving that kind of environment does not set you up very well to go back and be with your family. It can be a very hard transition,” he said.

“Providing assistance and support in three key areas — getting a job, maintaining healthy and supportive relationships with a partner and other family members, and doing the other things that you need to do as a parent to help your children grow up and not follow the path that led you to prison — that’s a good start to reentry.”

The initiative will focus on inmates being released from three men’s and two women’s facilities to Thurston, Clark, Lewis and Cowlitz counties, which have the highest rates of children with current or previously incarcerated parents in the state, according to the Washington Department of Social and Health Services. Eligible inmates will be identified about nine months before release and offered an opportunity to participate in the initiative, which will bring together existing training programs and add a few new ones. More than 500 inmates are expected to be served over four years.

The grant starts Oct. 30, and Partners for our Children will be meeting with the program’s other stakeholders over a nine-month planning and training period before inmates began receiving services. Eddy, a clinical psychologist who specializes in research on incarcerated parents and children and their families, will lead a team of researchers that will evaluate the efficacy of the new initiative.

The team will interview participants and service providers, track recidivism rates and conduct a randomized, controlled trial looking at outcomes between participants and other parent inmates before and after release, following them through reentry into the community and beyond. A companion study will use administrative records to gauge how participants fare compared with a demographically matched group drawn from the general prison population after release.

The researchers will look at participants’ family relationships, financial health, parenting challenges and children’s well-being. They’ll also collect data on program implementation, consistency and costs. Eddy said there are few comprehensive studies looking at which programs are most effective for incarcerated parents and which inmates are most likely to benefit from them.

“One of the difficulties about the evidence-based practices movement is the almost exclusive emphasis on the question, ‘Does a program work?’” he said.

“But there are other really important questions beyond this one, such as, ‘Who is the program most effective for?’ and ‘When is the program effective?’ and ’What needs to be done to keep it being effective?’ We hope to examine these and other questions for this initiative.”