Prisoners are among the most marginalized members of society, but there's another group that may face an even harsher sentence: their children.

Most of these youngsters deal with a combination of inadequate parenting and shame at having a parent in prison, as well as poverty. Many drop out of school and many are prey to sexual and physical abuse, neglect and substance abuse. Worse, most of these youngsters never receive help, and consequently, many become offenders themselves.

Psychologists are joining a small but growing effort to help these children before major trouble befalls them. In January, APA's Div. 29 (Psychotherapy) began an interdisciplinary task force to address the issue, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) recently began to examine how the department might better serve the children and families of prisoners. In addition, psychologists are helping to design and run innovative parenting programs for male and female prisoners, and in some cases, for the children themselves.

These interventions come at a time when the number of affected children is growing rapidly but there's little quantitative knowledge about them, says Diane J. Willis, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Div. 29 president and chair of the Div. 29 task force.

"Eighty percent of the 2 million people incarcerated in the United States are parents, leaving 1.5 million children with parents in prison," she says. "Yet research on and programs for these children are scarce."

"What we do know is that many of these children are at high risk for second-generation incarceration," Willis adds. "For parents who are in or have left prison, we need more community-based treatment programs, better treatment programs for those addicted to drugs and alcohol, and more efforts that focus on rehabilitation instead of punishment. We also need effective therapy programs for the children themselves."

Filling in the blanks

The Div. 29 task force hopes in a year's time to address these gaps, Willis says. The group's members--who include psychologists, child advocates, attorneys, physicians and members of APA's Office of Women's Programs--plan to:

  • Write a report on what's known and not known on the demographics of parents in prison.

  • Identify the best treatment and rehabilitation methods for creating positive change in incarcerated parents.

  • Identify children in out-of-home care to evaluate the best intervention and prevention techniques for them and to identify gaps in service.

  • Determine clinical research needs that will increase our knowledge about crime, violence, parents in prison and their children.

  • Explore public policy issues to strengthen legislation and increase funding for research, treatment and rehabilitation.

  • Disseminate articles and materials to help train mental health professionals to work with parents in prison and their children.

A California center

While these work groups are trying to ascertain what is known quantitatively about youngsters whose parents are in prison, several projects are demonstrating how creative programs can make a positive difference in the quality of life for these children.

In the Los Angeles area, Denise Johnston, MD--also on the Div. 29 task force--has been conducting research and developing demonstration projects that she disseminates to practitioners and policy-makers for further implementation. She runs these projects from the Center for the Children of Incarcerated Parents, a research and policy organization she founded in 1989.

Among the center's many efforts is a longitudinal intervention that provides inmates' children with long-term, developmentally sound help in handling traumas and difficult emotions and behaviors, such as anger, depression and aggression. The youngsters receive weekly therapy sessions, participate in regular skill-building and social activities, and join in two fun events each year, such as a picnic or a trip to an amusement park.

So far, the project has treated and kept data on 650 children, some for several years.

"Many of the children face so many traumas on a regular basis that therapeutic work is an uphill battle," Johnston says.

One young girl, for instance, lived with parents who were in and out of prison, a mother who abandoned her when she was 2, and the burning down of her grandmother's home where she was living, among other disruptions. Others are more fortunate and end up in relatively stable situations that allow interventions to take better hold. Most of the children, however--including the little girl--react positively to the interventions anyway, especially on measures of aggression, she says.

"At the beginning, the children in our program tend to be noticeable for bad behavior," Johnston says. "At the end of their time with us, we noticed our children were very 'smooth'--there were very few raw edges. They glide among the other children in school without disruption."

Another California project aims to build attachment between women prisoners and their babies and young children, which complements research Johnston has been conducting on attachment in this population since 1996. The program includes exercises for the mother-child dyad, the mothers alone and the children alone.

Recently, the mothers were given rocking chairs for Christmas. The women's homework was to rock their children for 20 to 30 minutes a day to facilitate full-body contact, one important feature of bonding, Johnston says. Moms also create photo albums of their children's development that they discuss at regular intervals with the youngster. These interventions give the children something families with an incarcerated parent or parents tend to lack: positive, stable, nurturing experiences they can use in all parts of their lives, Johnston says.

New Hampshire's program

In New Hampshire, a team made up of family studies faculty at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), staff at the university's Cooperative Extension and the state's Department of Corrections has launched the Family Connections Project. The program serves the 500 fathers and 30 mothers at Lakes Region Correctional Facility, a minimum- to medium-security facility in Laconia, N.H. Family studies specialist Kerry Kazura, PhD, a member of the Div. 29 task force, co-directs the project with Mary Tempke, PhD, of the UNH Cooperative Extension, a government program that requires all "land grant" colleges such as UNH to share their research results with the community.

The program has three tiers. The first is a mandatory parenting class for all prisoners at the Laconia facility who have children. This class teaches inmates the basics of child growth and development, positive discipline and how to teach their children problem-solving and decision-making skills. The next two program layers are voluntary. One comprises supervised support groups that allow inmates to discuss problems with, concerns about and hopes for their relationships with their children--about 30 inmates currently participate in these groups, which are held approximately three times a month.

The other voluntary part of the program is made up of two-hour supervised meetings between the inmate and child. During the sessions, team members observe the interactions between parent and child, gather data from behind a two-way mirror, then give the inmate feedback. This type of intervention is rare on the national level, says Kazura; she surmises prison officials allowed it only because the inmates at the facility were nonviolent offenders.

The intervention team continually adjusts its interventions if it perceives that something's not working or if inmates express an interest in a new intervention, Kazura says. After about a month watching the two-hour interactions, for example, "We noticed that the visits between the fathers and their children were getting kind of stale," Kazura says. The team then designed and taught the fathers miniclasses on the fundamentals of good play, such as involving youngsters in open-ended games like drawing and painting rather than close-ended ones such as watching videos.

"The fathers' play interactions increased dramatically," Kazura says. One previously shy father-and-son pair, for instance, were seen happily creating a greeting card for the child's mom and reading a book together after the intervention.

From the research end, the program will be the first to her knowledge to research attachment relationships in the prison population, Kazura says. She adds that the program's success to date is the partial result of building a slow, trusting relationship with prison officials, who now stand firmly behind the program. As a show of support, they gave the team a wing of the prison in which to house its programs.

The project is funded for three years by New Hampshire's Division of Drug and Alcohol Prevention and Recovery, and is being considered for possible statewide adoption in the next five years, Kazura says.

An Oregon model

In Oregon, Rex Newton, PhD, a psychologist from the Portland suburb of Tigard, who's worked in the prison system for 28 years, and psychologists John Reid, PhD, and Gerry Patterson, PhD, of the Oregon Social Learning Center, are combining their efforts to create a prevention-based program for children that they hope will eventually serve all 13 of Oregon's state prisons. A pilot version of the program will be launched at a coed prison in Salem, Ore., this spring, and the program will be formally launched at a new women's prison in Coffee Creek, Ore., in the fall. Team members got involved when they were invited to a meeting of public and private agencies convened last February by the Oregon Department of Corrections to develop a strategy to help youngsters escape the loop of intergenerational incarceration.

"That meeting was so inspiring and so passionate--it seemed like everyone was represented," recalls Newton. "There was such a common belief among attendees that this thing should happen that it just took off."

The team devised a plan that includes three main points of intervention, all of which are uncommon in most prisons. The first is to assign a child advocate to a child immediately upon a parent's arrest--"the point at which children are usually lost to the system," Newton says.

The second is to assess all inmates once they've entered the prison system to determine problems, such as substance abuse, and to ascertain whether the inmate is a parent. A prison team then develops an incarceration plan to guide a person through the system, which includes mandatory parenting classes for parents. The third part of the program comes at the time of release, adding a parenting component to other aspects of the inmate's release.

"In the past, the important issues for inmates were getting a job and a place to live," Newton says, "We want to also make the child a big key."

When they get home, inmates often face grown children who are harboring anger and resentment toward them, Newton notes. "We want to pay attention at this point so that the family doesn't implode on itself," Newton says.

In fact, if this part of the program isn't attended to, it may nullify all that was accomplished while the parent was in prison, believes Reid, who is executive director of the Oregon Social Learning Center.

"If we are really going to capitalize on what we're doing in prison, we really need good transitional services," Reid says. "When it comes down to it, parenting is not an intellectual thing--it's a hands-on, immediate thing." Parents unaccustomed to daily interactions with their children need help getting into the nitty-gritty of parenting, he says.

A note of caution

While psychologists are excited about all of these endeavors, they emphasize that caution is key. Political realities--including a more conservative administration and the inherent tension between those whose job is to punish and those whose job is to rehabilitate--must be faced squarely if psychologists are to make an impact on these children and their parents, Reid says.

Toward this end, an essential feature of program success is getting corrections staff on board early so they have a say in the program, he believes.

But if any issue is a galvanizing one for people on all sides, it's children, Newton adds.

"If our end goal is helping inmates become better parents--keeping their children from taking the journey they've taken through the prison system--that's something everyone can get behind."

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.