22, No. 1
Suggestions for Engaging Families When a Parent Is Incarcerated
Parental incarceration is a serious issue for the child welfare system. Approximately 10 million children in the United States have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives, and 15 - 20% of youth entering foster care have a parent who's in jail or prison (IWGYP, n.d.; NRCCFI, 2014).
When it occurs, parental incarceration has a huge impact on children and their families: two out of three families with a parent in jail or prison struggle financially due to the loss of income and the cost of visiting and phone calls (IWGYP, n.d.). Having an incarcerated parent increases children's risk of living in poverty, having behavioral problems, and physical and mental health conditions (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2015). However, when they get the support they need, these children show less distress and adjust more easily to the separation from their parent (NRCCFI, 2014).
So how can we engage these children and families and help meet their needs? For suggestions Practice Notes spoke with Melissa Radcliff, Program Director for Our Children's Place of Coastal Horizons Center, a statewide education and advocacy program in North Carolina focused on children of incarcerated parents. (This interview has been edited for style and length.)
What are the top things workers should know about children with a parent who is incarcerated?
They aren't destined to follow in their parents' footsteps. Research shows these children are no more likely than other children to end up in jail or prison (NRCCFI, 2014).
We can make a difference by being supportive. The best way we can support children is to make sure they can have a relationship with their parents. For most people, this leads to realizing the parent needs support, too.
How can workers develop a positive relationship with these children? How can we engage them?
Do your homework and advocate. Know the difference between jail and prison. Know what the rules are about family contact (e.g., is there a dress code or a limit on how many family members can attend the visit?). Know what services are available in the parent's facility. Facilitate family visits and contact via phone and letters as often as possible. Coach both the parent and child so they are prepared for family contact.
Ease the burden. Parents in prison can be in a facility over 100 miles away from their child (IWGYP, n.d.). Transportation and phone calls can be expensive. Consider transporting the family to visits and providing bus passes or phone cards. Encourage families to write letters to each other. Letters help the family stay connected between visits.
Be honest with the child. The child needs to know where the parent is and why. It is the parent or caretaker's responsibility to have an honest conversation about this with the child. Help the family consider how to tell the child in a way she can understand. Visit www.ourchildrensplace.com and click on Resources for a list of children's books that help families talk about incarceration. This page also contains resources that could be helpful to social workers as well.
Focus on more than the incarceration. Talk with the child about their parent outside of the incarceration. Ask questions like: Tell me what you like to do with your dad? Did you ever go out to dinner with your mom? What would you talk to your dad about if he wasn't in prison? The incarceration isn't the child's or the parent's identity.
What should workers keep in mind about parents in jail or prison?
They won't be incarcerated forever. They will be released at some point, so we need to think about their reentry. Explore how you can ensure the child's safety and the family's success when the parent is released.
Know the limits. Consider whether parents can realistically do the things on their case plan. Programs and resources vary across facilities and many incarcerated parents may not have access to the services they need. Recognize that not all facilities have social workers; some have case managers instead. Prison staff have high caseloads and may not have voicemail. Understand that contacting someone in the facility may take considerably longer than usual. Consider these limitations and think "outside the box" when drafting the case plan.
How can we build a positive relationship with these parents and engage them with the agency?
Keep them involved. Remind parents that they have an important role in their child's life. Although their relationship with the child may look a bit different now, it is still important. Help the parent explore ways to remain involved and to connect with their child.
Recognize their parenting priorities. A parent of a 9-year-old may be concerned about bullying, while one with a teenager may be worried about whether their child is having sex. Neither of these things may be a priority for you as a child welfare worker, but having a conversation with the parent about these things shows you care about their concerns.