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When the parents are locked up, what about the children?: Parental imprisonment and the maintenance of family ties


“I had so much anxiety… I’m not saying it was going to hurt me, but when those puppies came in, I’m just saying it saved me.” This is the voice of an incarcerated mother who misses her children, graduated from Breed, Prison and Puppies (PPP)the first and only program of its kind.

Since 2017, PPP, an evidence-based parenting program integrated with Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT), has been provided to incarcerated mothers at the Westchester County Department of Correction, in partnership with Pace University and Hudson Valley Paws for a Cause . With March hailed as Second Chance Month, a commitment to promote reintegration processes, PPP provides a second chance to incarcerated mothers who want to maintain healthy bonds with their children.

As someone affected by parental incarceration, I understand its devastating effects on families. Therefore, I have designed, evaluated, and directed corrections-based programming for more than 25 years; I also work as director of PPP. I recognize that by giving incarcerated parents the tools they need to mend ties with their children, we are finding another way to fight crime, albeit from within.

Our society spends a lot of time discussing lawbreaking and imprisonment, but there is limited discussion about children left behind when a parent commits a crime. The ability to maintain healthy parent-child bonds is critical to a child’s physical and psychological well-being. Since the bonds between parents and children are often damaged during the process of parental incarceration, parenting programs for the incarcerated are vital.

Approximately 5 million children in the US have experienced the incarceration of a parent. Many children of incarcerated parents are resilient and will thrive, but others have issues such as depression, anxiety, health, and/or poor school performance. Perhaps they seek to replace family support, later absent at home, with others that draw them into gangs or drugs, eventually ending up in the same system that separated them from their parents.

Although losing an incarcerated father is hard, losing a mother seems more damaging. Women, who are often the primary caregivers for minor children, are a vital component of family stability. With 70% of incarcerated women in charge of a minor child, women must be the main focus of rehabilitation initiatives; healthy contact with a parent, even limited contact, is beneficial in helping children achieve prosocial outcomes.

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Benign and cost-effective interventions, such as PPP, can be easily implemented in prison settings. Animal-assisted therapy is used to create a safe space, often difficult to achieve in a correctional setting, as we not only discuss parenting, but also the underlying reasons for incarceration.

Therapy dogs are used to provide emotional support and are deliberately integrated into the parenting curriculum. They motivate everyone to stay in the class, despite the discomfort of some of our discussions. “(The dogs were) very loving and I felt more comforted and relaxed,” said one woman. While therapy dogs offer support, the women learn skills like communication and problem-solving to build healthier relationships with their children.

With caring and committed volunteer staff, an integral component of the program’s effectiveness, we are witnessing many successes, including statistically significant differences in anxiety, parental stress, self-esteem, and parental knowledge. Even though the program lasted less than two months, participants reported more confidence in their parenting skills, more contact with their children, and better relationships with their family, including the child’s caregiver (i.e., their children’s guardian). . One graduate said: “I learned more than I thought. I was able to make connections with my family and bond with them.”

Having strong family ties is especially important in transient settings, such as prisons, where skills can be taught in a short period of time, practiced while incarcerated, and used upon return to the community. The success of this program allowed for its expansion to incarcerated parents last year.

Volunteers from the therapy team and Pace students help run the program. Pace students don’t necessarily get it, but by volunteering to help the incarcerated, your ability to fight crime begins early in your career path. Often used successfully by many law enforcement agencies, dogs are serving as alternative crime fighters in the prison setting, helping mothers address underlying trauma issues that often lead to substance abuse. and the subsequent crime.

Many corrections-based programs are provided by volunteers and through private donations. Using PPP as an example, universities across the country can easily assist in this process, with donors to the universities helping to offset operating costs. The cost is small, especially when compared to the value of a child’s psychological well-being and its value in having a chance for a better future.

Collica-Cox is a professor of criminal justice and security at Pace University.

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