“An Unlikely Partnership”: A New Film Fostering the Possibilities of Alternatives to Incarceration for Parents

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I got arrested 5 days before my kid’s 6th birthday, they’re 9 years old now...I was just so low. Not being able to see my kids. Having to call on the phone. Having to ask, is this Brianna or is this Michaela. There shouldn’t ever be a point in my life where I don’t know whose voice I’m hearing.”

These are the words of a formerly incarcerated mother from in a recent film “An Unlikely Partnership: Strengthening Families Touched By Incarceration. These words exhibit the reality that although the time spent parenting from the inside is invaluable, the pain of being separated and not being able to parent on a consistent basis is heartbreaking. Fortunately, in this mother’s case she was able to get early release to be with her twins at about 12 months under the Family Offender Sentencing Alternative’s (FOSA) Community Parenting Alternative (Early Release) in Washington State.

The film was released by the United States Children's Bureau (CB) in collaboration with Washington the Department of Corrections and the Department of Early Learning (DEL). It is the first in a planned series aimed at documenting what's working across the country to help prevent child maltreatment and promote child well-being. The film highlights what is possible when instead of solely serving time in prison, a parent can serve their time and return to the community with the support systems that are needed. That way they can “re-enter” into society and their children’s lives.

With 2.7 million children with a parent behind bars and with over half of individuals in prison being parents, we must find solutions to hold individuals accountable and also recognize that these individuals are more than their crimes— they are parents, caregivers, breadwinners, community members and much much more. Therefore, the solutions we seek should allow people to be their whole selves, not just people in prison. Instead, our states spend heavily on corrections and few resources exist to support the children and communities that are left behind or release people from prison early. The impact on our communities as a whole and the children of incarcerated parents is often not addressed. Instead the solution is to put more people in prison.

This film highlights one step towards supporting those families. With this parent alternative sentencing program, Washington is leading the way. One component of the law that is not featured in the film is the Family Offender Sentencing Alternative. Under this option parents avoid prison altogether and a judge can sentence them to serve their time in the community, where they can then prioritize and strengthen their relationships with their children. This “Unlikely Partnership” demonstrates what is possible when Corrections and the Department of Early Learning come together. The program shifts the focus to skills building and not just punitive “public safety” oriented check-ins that an average community corrections officer is charged with completing. Community Corrections Officers under the alternative are more like social workers and have a focus on interacting with the families and build support within the families. Specifically, the program uses the Five Protective Factors for Strengthening Families Model: parental resilience, social connections, concrete support in times of need, knowledge of parenting and child development, and social and emotional competence of children.

The success of the program is clear: out of 301 participants only 8% have gone back, which is promising when alone the state average for return to prison was 30% during the same period. Even more importantly as the director of the program Susie Leavell potently states— “we’re saving money phenomenally: social costs, foster care costs, incarceration costs, but honestly I think the bigger benefit is the maintaining of that parental bond.”

As all models go, there are some limitations to this law that leave many parents out. In order to truly put kids first and save social and financial costs, we must highlight the three major problems with the eligibility requirements for participation in the alternative:

1. The definition of parent is too narrow:

Only “custodial parents” can get the prison alternative. And for the early release alternative, the parent must have “a proven, established, ongoing, and substantial relationship with his or her minor child that existed prior to the commission of the current offense.” Some parents don’t have an ongoing relationship due to the barriers caused by incarceration itself (expensive phone calls, distance, lack of effective visitation programs) and/or child welfare system. Placing the importance of parent on custody of a child is antiquated as many parents actively and meaningfully parent their children as non-custodial parents. Under a narrow reading the current law also does not explicitly cover pregnant parents or parents whose partners were expecting at the time of sentencing. Nor does it explicitly include non-custodial parents with children in open adoptions, non-parental custody decrees, or guardianship. And as in incarcerated father Daniel Loera’s case, he didn’t find out he was a father until four years after his daughter was born. He is now an active part of his daughter’s life as he continues to serve his sentence.

2. Only parents with non-violent crimes can obtain the law:

This is problematic when many people serving time for violent crimes actually committed no violence, have a low risk level to re-offend, and their crime had nothing to do with their parenting skills. There is an assumption that a parent with a violent crime would be more likely to harm their children, whereas many people with violent crimes are actively parenting from prison. It makes no sense to leave them out. Also, we are not going to solve mass incarceration without supporting alternatives for people with violent crimes

3. Individuals with immigration detainers are ineligible:

However, to point to the model’s limitations is not to undermine its importance in next steps for families. Kudos to director Susie Leavell and the FOSA corrections staff for the lens that they are placing on “Corrections.” As she recommends in the video, corrections can “look for an unlikely partner, it can be done. It can be done successfully and safely, and for the benefit of kids. Because really what this is all about is for the best interest of the children.”

The model, is not perfect, but it is a perfect representation of what may be possible if we continue to support our families instead of separate them.

*Originally Published on Justice Strategies Blog.

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