TUMWATER – Fathers behind bars say they have better relationships with their children, thanks to a new Washington Department of Corrections program.
The agency’s reentry division launched the Strength in Families (SIF) program in July 2016 to help inmates with children transition back into society and be successful parents. Since its launch one year ago, the voluntary program has served over 130 men at four prisons.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families awarded a $7.5 million federal grant in October 2015 to fund the program. Following a nine-month planning phase, the program targets incarcerated fathers and father figures who will be releasing from correctional facilities into Thurston, Lewis, Cowlitz, Clark and Pierce counties. The program focuses on serving Southwest Washington because a 2008 Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) report identified regions within these five counties as having significantly higher rates of children with incarcerated parents.
Strength in Families is currently offered at Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, Larch Corrections Center in Yacolt, Cedar Creek Corrections Center in Littlerock and Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen. The support of Corrections leadership and staff across all divisions has been critical to the success of this reentry program, according to Carolyn House-Higgins, program manager.
Inmates releasing from prison often face significant obstacles related to finding stable housing, employment and education, according to reentry division staff. It can also be hard to reestablish healthy relationships with family members. Strength in Families focuses on addressing these challenges with participating fathers and families.
“While the challenges of reentry are undeniably tough, fathers in the program continue to hold onto hope, build new skills and make changes that support the well-being of their children, themselves and ultimately, the community,” said SIF program manager Carolyn House-Higgins.
What the Program Funds
The program has two family service instructors, four case managers and two education and employment navigators. Program participants take a variety of classes and receive reentry transition support from program staff that focuses on the strengths of the fathers and their families. Inmates may participate in these program activities as early as nine months prior to their prison release dates. They may also continue these services for six months or more after returning to their communities.
How It Works
Strength in Families is a voluntary program for incarcerated fathers. It provides support to build knowledge and practical skills related to parenting, healthy relationships, and economic stability. It works with reentering parents, their families and communities during the reentry process.
Parenting Inside Out is an evidence-based course to help incarcerated parents renew contact with their children and learn effective patenting skills they can use after they leave prison. Walking the Line is a research-based course teaching parents and co-parents healthy communication skills and positive parenting approaches.
Participants also take “Job Seeking Skills,” a course taught by contracted instructors from Clark, Centralia, and Grays Harbor colleges. Two prisons recently added Gottman Institute’s Emotion Coaching class to the curriculum to give parents practical skills to help their children manage emotions in a healthy way. It’s not uncommon for program participants to log more than 100 classroom hours, House-Higgins said.
Strength in Families’ four case managers and two education and employment navigators work with correctional staff from all across southwest Washington to help participants and determine what other resources they’ll need after they return to the community.
Collaboration with community partners and referrals to local organizations is a large part of what Strength in Families staff do. The program has provided over 1,200 service contacts and resource referrals thus far. Groups of new Strength in Families participants enter the program quarterly. The Department of Corrections anticipates 40 more incarcerated parents will begin the program in July 2017.
Staff report seeing incremental changes in the lives of program participants and their families on a regular basis, according to House-Higgins. She says the classes have developed some participants’ leadership skills and have mentored other incarcerated fathers.
“One participant’s son was born while he was in the program and the participant told staff he was eager to use knowledge he gained about how physical contact and music can help an infant’s brain development,” said JC Rescorla, SIF family services instructor.
Viola Gorham, a case manager, provided another example. She said an inmate who completed the program, recently released from prison, and entered inpatient chemical dependency treatment voluntarily. He also has plans to enroll in college this fall.
“He has developed realistic, attainable goals, including small milestone steps thanks to this program,” said Gorham. “He accepts responsibility for the actions that resulted in his prison sentence and is working hard to reestablish his relationship with his child.”