Change-Makers Series: FamilyWorks Program at the Osborne Association
At any given time, more than 5 million children in the United States have a parent in jail or prison. In New York, that number is 148,000 a year.
“Orphans of mass incarceration” are what these kids are sometimes called. They live with heightened family instability and a sense of abandonment while their parent is doing time. The household income lost to incarceration affects these kids’ long-term development. Rent money, food, education, and medical care—things most people consider basic necessities—may be out of reach for their families.
The emotional toll can be even higher. The infrequent contact with their incarcerated parent coupled with the parent’s return home (often with diminished job prospects, debts, and emotional/physical scars from prison) can be extremely stressful.
What Is Being Done
Kids share the burden of their parent’s sentence and the only way to decrease that burden is to reduce the number of incarcerated individuals and to provide the necessary supports to both parents and their kids while they are serving time.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation recently highlighted this problem in their report, “A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll Of Parental Incarceration On Kids, Families, and Communities.” But they noted that instead of reducing the prison population, the number of kids with a father in prison or jail rose by 500% from 1980 to 2000.
So until those numbers are reduced, it is more important than ever to have programs in place that facilitate keeping family bonds intact while parents serve time. Kids need their parents, even when they are behind bars. Those serving time need their kids, as a source of hope and as a motivation to do better.
Change-Maker: The Osborne Association’s FamilyWorks
FamilyWorks is a comprehensive parenting program developed by the Osborne Association, specifically designed for those who face the challenge of being a parent behind bars. It was started in 1985 and currently runs in 8 NYS correctional facilities. It serves an estimated 225 men each year.
The men enrolled in FamilyWorks often say they lack role models for good parenting. They themselves may have grown up in homes with poverty, violence, addiction, and unhealthy coping behaviors. They want to be good parents, but say they lack the tools to do so. Serving time just makes that harder. Many say they have let their children down and are ashamed of the choices they have made.
FamilyWorks teaches them how to make, mend, and maintain relationships with their children. It is a voluntary program—neither incentivized nor rewarded by the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision—so the men who participate want to be there.
We spoke with Michael Wilcher who runs the FamilyWorks program to get a sense of the challenges these parents face and how FamilyWorks helps them cope.
Who is eligible to participate in your program?
Michael: We give preference to parents first, although any man with an interest can participate. Even if someone is doing a 10-year sentence, what they learn can be applied during incarceration (through letter writing and parent-child interaction in Children’s Centers managed by Osborne within prison visiting rooms) and later, after they get out of prison.
What is the structure of your program?
Michael: We provide 16 sessions of targeted programming where we teach men relationship and communication skills. Our program asks men to dig deep, talk about how they feel, and remember what can be sometimes painful memories of the past. We ask them to write about their lives and reflect on ways they might have failed at being a parent and ways they want to improve. Often these men come from homes with absent or abusive fathers. We try to teach them to break that cycle. At the end of the 16 sessions, we hold a graduation ceremony at facilities where graduations are permitted.
Who runs your programs?
Michael: Highly-trained family service specialists teach our program. They are well-acquainted with the trauma and stress the incarcerated men experience. Their job is to help these men heal. In so doing, they make them better fathers, husbands, uncles, brothers, stepfathers and father figures.
What do you tell a parent to do if the child is angry with them or doesn’t want to see them?
Michael: It is healthy for kids to express themselves and when they say they are angry, they are telling the truth. So we tell the men in our program to let their kids vent and to accept how they feel. We ask them to see things from the kid’s perspective.
How many times can a parent see their child while they are incarcerated?
Michael: In maximum security prisons, visitors are welcome 7 days a week. In medium security prisons, it varies. But there are obstacles. Many of the prisons we work in are located upstate, quite a distance from the city without ready access to public transportation. Families will go to extreme measures to see their loved one so we try when possible to help out with transportation. Often these families are struggling financially too so money can be an obstacle.
Do correctional facilities encourage family visits?
Michael: Yes. For people in prison, spending time with their families is the best therapy. It calms them personally and helps them see a future with their family. Because of this, visiting can translate into a more peaceful environment for the whole prison.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Michael: On graduation day, you can see how much pride the men have and hope for rebuilding relationships with their children and families. You can see that their outlook has changed. They feel like they can contribute and have a future and are moving on to something better in their lives. That makes what we do really worth it.