March 10, 2014

Shared Parenting – Opportunity and innovation for incarcerated mothers.

Posted in Employees, Kids-A-Part, Program Spotlight tagged , , , , , , , at 11:52 am by Lund

When a woman goes to jail, it is not just her life that is dramatically changed.

There is a growing awareness that incarceration is not solely a hardship for the inmate but for their children as well.  The Bureau of Justice estimates that on any given day there are more than 2.4 million children in the United States with a parent in prison. The number of children with a mother in prison has more than doubled since 1991; an increase of at least 131% over the last 20 years. The Vermont Department of Corrections reports that 994 women sentenced to prison terms between October 2010 and October 2011 had between them 848 children.

Lund’s Kids-A-Part program seeks to reduce the trauma to children of their mother’s incarceration by working with children and caregivers in the community and with the mothers in the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility (CRCF).  Part of this work is running parenting and family education groups inside the jail for the mothers.

The Kids-A-Part visiting room at CRCF.

The Kids-A-Part visiting room at CRCF.

One of these groups is an innovative program called ‘Shared Parenting’ which addresses the needs of incarcerated women attempting to parent their children from a distance.  The program was started at the Children’s Center at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York by Bobby Blanchard from The Center for Children and Families at Columbia University.

The program is currently evidence informed and implementing the group at CRCF is part of the research to make it evidence based.  The clinicians and case managers feel extremely grateful to have the opportunity to participate in the program.   “Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility was chosen as a site for replication for a few reasons. The demographic is significantly different than that of the population at Bedford Hills which is a maximum security prison housing close to 800 women. CRCF is in a rural state with a much smaller number of incarcerated women, and houses women with much shorter sentences, primarily for drug related offenses. This opportunity for replication is critical to understanding how this approach to parenting education impacts groups across cultures and geographical locations as well as how it can be adapted for regional differences,” says Bobby Blanchard.

The group is facilitated at CRCF by Crystal Fisher, a clinician, and Jo Berger, a community case manager, from Kids-A-Part and Bobby.  It is focused on helping the women to understand that their story and their situation can be understood from multiple perspectives and that it is so important to take these different angles into account when thinking about how to parent and how to interact with their child’s caregiver.  This reflection is mostly done through writing prompts.

“They are asked to write from their child’ s perspective in their child’s voice,” says Crystal.  “If their child was under the covers writing in their journal about incarceration, what would that look like or what would that sound like?  It is so challenging to put it into their child’s voice but we’ve had women who have done an amazing job.  They write in the words the child would say.  It’s amazing and it’s heart breaking to hear what they write.”

A mother might think that her child wants to be with her because she has said so but it takes some careful reflection to start to understand that it might not be so simple.  The child might feel obligated to say that they want to be with the mom, they might enjoy and feel safe living with their current caregiver but might not want to say so and hurt their mom’s feelings.   Examining these different perspectives is a difficult but enlightening process.

For many women, this is the first opportunity to think about someone having a different perspective.  “There is one women,” says Crystal, “She is questioning herself about her incarceration in a totally wonderful way.  She is saying, ‘I am doing things to parent my child from jail’ whereas before she was saying, ‘My Mom’s raising my kid.’  She can point to the things she is doing and show how she is maintaining the connection.  She is hearing that there could be different ways to tell her story.  I can’t imagine these chances would have happened without this program. “

The staff at Lund who are working with this program feel very fortunate to be able to provide this group for the women in the jail and to gain the professional experience that can inform other work that they do.  “This program with Bobby comes along once in a lifetime. I am so grateful. Jo, myself, Lund we’re getting to be part of telling the story of what it’s like to be an incarcerated mother and make that story part of a national narrative.  To have this opportunity through the research to look at something that can fundamentally change the relationship between a woman and her child and the child’s caregiver and the direction of her life. It’s amazing,” says Crystal.

This program will soon by implemented by Bobby in another jail in New York state and Jo and Crystal will continue it at CRCF after the Center’s research is complete.  Parenting from inside the jail is hard for everyone but being able to understand how the experience differs between mother, child and caregiver is such a key step in reducing the difficulties. “Thinking about parenting one’s child always involves learning to parent one’s self, which is a critical step in the mother’s rehabilitative process and that mother can play a critical role in helping her children cope with the separation caused by her incarceration.” says Bobby.  A mother is still a mother even when she is incarcerated and a child still has a mother even if she is in jail.

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