When a parent is incarcerated, there is an effect felt throughout the entire family unit. For a period of time, that parent’s interaction and influence on their children is limited to meetings behind a thick panel of glass.
In Maryland, the Governor’s Office for Children has estimated that 90,000 children are impacted by parental incarceration. Working through local management boards, the office seeks out programs that can address this need in communities.
That’s how the Inmate Visitation and Parenting Assistance Program, also known as the Family Ties program, was born. This is currently the only program in Maryland that allows contact visits outside of the detention center.
For an hour at a time, incarcerated individuals in the program can meet with their minor children in person. They are able to hold them and interact with them — no glass, no phones.
Along with the visitation comes mandatory participation in the 14-session Strengthening Families program, which has been around since the 1990s and is tailored to improving parenting skills and family relationships. The curriculum used by Family Ties is adapted to be more useful for incarcerated individuals.
Amanda Jones, of Westminster, was one of the first participants in the new program when visitations began in December.
Jones was eager to join the program when a warden at the Carroll County Detention Center offered her the chance. She was serving time for a violation of probation after a conviction of distribution of a fake or counterfeit controlled dangerous substance.
The visits made a “big difference” in her interactions with her 8-year-old son Elijah, she said. The two would play games or do art projects in the arts and crafts room.
“It’s harder to sit and see your child [in the detention center],” she said. “They’re wondering, ‘Why can’t I come see you?’ ”
The visitations were a way to ease back into her child’s life, and she said they motivated her to do better for herself and him.
“You feel a lot better after you do it,” she said of joining the program. “A lot of parents are just stuck.”
Jones did not complete the entire program because she transferred to home detention, and said having the full 14 sessions of Strengthening Families would have helped her transition better.
“I feel if the individual’s going to participate, they need to go through the whole process,” she said.
Visitations take place at the Carroll County Visitation Center, operated by the Carroll County Circuit Court’s Family Law Administration. The Family Ties program comes together through collaboration between the Family Law Administration, the Carroll County Local Management Board and the Carroll County Detention Center.
The range of the program is meant to have effects far beyond the weekly meetings for parents and children.
“The whole basis of the program is … to help serve the whole unit of the family,” said Casey Staubs, visitation services coordinator for the Family Law Administration.
In the long term, the program is designed to benefit the children and reduce generational participation in the criminal justice system.
According to a news release, the goals of the program are to “decrease negative outcomes for children such as depression, conduct disorders, use of illegal substances and antisocial behavior while promoting social engagement and family involvement.”
The program coordinators believe it can also have an impact outside of the family unit.
“We get a lot of concern that this is a lot of work for people that are in trouble,” Staubs said. “We can’t deny that these people have had some issues, but they’re being released — that affects everyone in the community.”
“It really seems to be a strong motivator just from the parents that I’ve talked to,” said Family Ties coordinator Angela McGinty. “We are hoping to see that there’s less of a recidivism rate for re-entry once they’re connecting with their children and maintaining that connection.”
The program is not appropriate for every incarcerated parent, and the Classification Unit in the detention center helps to determine which inmates are best suited.
When there are issues between parent and child, or the custodian of the child and the incarcerated parent, the program will not force them to reconnect.
“It’s always important to remember that these services are child-centered.” McGinty said. “Everyone has to be on board, from the detention center to the caregiver.”
Because the detention center is in the court complex within sight of the visitation center, it makes transportation much easier, cheaper and safer.
“It’s a very crucial time when you get released,” McGinty said. “We’re trying to close the gap between coming out and starting from scratch.”