Mothers Inside Loving Kids: An Evaluation of a Parenting Support Program for Inmate Mothers

Coleman, Elizabeth, Clinical Psychology - Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Loper, Ann, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Lawrence, Edith, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Sheras, Peter, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Deutsch, Nancy, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia

With the advent of harsher mandatory sentencing laws in the 1980s, the number of incarcerated mothers in the US grew dramatically leaving a large group of vulnerable children behind (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008). A considerable body of research has found that these children are at increased risk for negative developmental outcomes including internalizing and externalizing behavior problems as well as academic difficulties and even failure (Murray, Farrington, & Sekol, 2012; Trice & Brewster, 2004). Given the number of known risk factors that are associated with incarceration (e.g., poverty, substance abuse, criminal activity; Connell & Goodman, 2002; Greenfeld & Snell, 1999; Zuckerman, 1994), it remains unclear whether a mother’s incarceration itself contributes to these outcomes or simply serves as a marker for children who were already at-risk. Nevertheless, Attachment Theory (Bowlby, 1969) and well-supported theories of accumulated risk (Gerard & Beuhler, 2004), teach that the sudden absence of a primary caregiver from a child’s life is likely to undermine healthy development and this is likely to be particularly true for children already facing adversity. As such, whether the relationship between maternal incarceration and negative developmental outcomes is primarily causal or correlational in nature, repairing and strengthening the mother-child attachment system is likely to contribute to resiliency among this vulnerable group of children.

With this in mind, and bolstered by findings indicating that improved relationships with family contribute to better outcomes for inmates, including fewer behavior and mental health problems (Bales & Mears, 2008; Hlavka, Wheelock, & Jones, 2015), some correctional communities have developed programs designed to strengthen relationships between incarcerated parents and their children. This study used mixed methods to evaluate the efficacy of one such program in two state correctional facilities in Virginia as perceived by inmate participants and institutional staff. The Mothers Inside Loving Kids (MILK) program aims to foster healthy mother-child relationships by creating a context for parent-child interactions that is more conducive to healthy, attachment-building dynamics than the typically inflexible and intimidating visitation environment. MILK includes three components: regularly scheduled, child-friendly visits, parent training, and group support. Given the multiple components and potential for many areas of impact, I developed a comprehensive theory of change model to detail the numerous hypothesized mechanisms of change. I then evaluated perceptions of changes in three primary domains: the mother-child relationship, the relationship between mothers and their children’s caregivers, and inmate behavior and wellbeing.

Results suggest that the majority of inmate participants perceived improvement in relationships with their children as a result of participating in MILK, which they attributed primarily to the enhanced visits, and this perception was also held by staff members. The aspects of the specialty visits most often cited as contributing to improved mother-child relationships were child-friendly activities, one-on-one interactions with children, and physical contact with children. There was more limited evidence to support the efficacy of the parent training and group support components of the program in improving relationships with children. With regard to mother-caregiver relationships, a majority of participants perceived improvements as a result of participating in MILK, including improved connection with caregivers and a stronger sense of parenting alliance. Again, staff reported similar perceptions in this area. As compared to the mother-child relationship improvements, participants attributed changes in the mother-caregiver relationship to the group support and parent training components as well as to the enhanced visits noting that they learned more about their caregiver’s perspective and how to interact with them more effectively through these program components. Lastly, results also supported the hypothesis that program participation would contribute to improved behavior and wellbeing among participants. The majority of MILK participants reported improved behavior since joining the program which included fewer infractions and increased engagement in prosocial activities and this was confirmed by staff perceptions. Additionally, a majority of women reported improvements in mental health as a result of participating in MILK. Women described gaining self-esteem and a more positive mood as a result of working towards becoming a better parent and more directly from enjoyable interactions with children. These results provide support for programs working to enhance interactions between incarcerated mothers and their children and offer insight into the factors that are most likely to contribute to healthier relationships.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Parental Incarceration, Maternal Incarceration, Children of Incarcerated Parents, Prison Visitation, Specialty Visitation
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