Two Community-based Efforts Aim to Improve Parenting Skills and Reduce Recidivism Rate in Dane County

UW-Madison School of Social Work Assistant Professor Pajarita Charles and Partners Emphasize Family Support

By Jason Lee

Faculty and staff of UW-Madison School of Social Work and UW Extension attend the Parenting Inside Out graduation

Raising children is the most important and rewarding work parents often experience. It can also be overwhelming. As any parent can attest, the joys also come with times of frustration and anxiety about one’s ability to ensure their children’s well-being.

Recently, several parents took steps to engage in and improve their own parenting skills by completing a 12-week evidenced-based skills training program called, Parenting Inside Out (PIO). The program is one of a pair of new community-supported initiatives that seek to support the parenting needs of individuals involved in the criminal justice system and reintegrating into their home communities after release. UW-Madison School of Social Work Assistant Professor Pajarita Charles and partners at UW Extension, the Dane County Sheriff’s Office, and the Dane County Jail piloted the program this spring. Seven fathers completed the program and celebrated their graduation with a short ceremony at the Dane County Jail.

“I always thought I was a good father and I thought I knew a lot,” said John, one of the parenting class graduates. This program, “helped me take a step back and evaluate. I can’t wait to go home and show my family,” he said.

Parenting Inside Out includes training in communication and problem-solving, positive reinforcement, monitoring, and non-violent discipline. It was developed for criminal justice-involved parents by scientists, policy makers, practitioners, and instructional designers.

“Introducing PIO to the Dane County Jail this year is part of a broader effort on the part of the Sheriff’s Office to support family connections of inmates,” Charles said. “We proposed PIO as a central parent education activity in hopes of piloting the program, learning implementation lessons, and seeking future funding to support its operation and to evaluate its effectiveness.”

Classes took place over a 12-week stretch and were taught by a social worker at the jail with support of UW Extension and Dr. Charles in the School of Social Work.

Graduates of Parenting Inside Out
Graduates of Parenting Inside Out

“It was great. I learned a lot,” said Johnathan, another participant who has five girls and a boy. “This was a group effort.” He noted that the structure of the classes was good and that he felt supported. “I would recommend [this program] to anyone in the community – not just those incarcerated.”

Each graduating parent selected a peer to attend graduation. Dane County Sherriff Dave Mahoney, members of the UW-Madison School of Social Work, UW Extension, and the Dane County Board of Supervisors also attended.

“Partnerships like this one are central to implementing and testing strategies to solve complex social problems,” Charles explained. “The project demonstrates how academia, local government, and other stakeholders can collaborate to implement practices and policies that support members of the Wisconsin community, including incarcerated parents. I was delighted to have an opportunity to join in this work and to promote connections between the UW-Madison School of Social Work and Dane County Jail. UW Extension, an important partner in this project, offers another natural bridge between the university and the community.”

The pilot program was funded by The Literacy Link, a UW Extension initiative to support relationships between young children and their incarcerated parents. Research shows that better family connections for inmates can improve their well-being, lower recidivism rates, and decrease the likelihood of their children being involved in the criminal justice system. The Sherriff’s Office is now working to secure permanent funding in order to sustain the program. All the project partners are eager to find the resources needed to keep it going now that the pilot is complete.

Dane County Jail was also selected by the National Institute of Corrections for a training and technical assistance award to support family connections.

“Most mothers and fathers, including those with criminal justice involvement, are eager to find ways to parent in the best way possible for their children,” Charles said. “Parenting Inside Out offers parents a set of skills to help them do just that. Promoting a pathway for parents after prison is central to their success and paramount to the future of their children.”

Program organizers hope to further study the effectiveness of the curriculum and to stabilize funding in order to offer it on a continuous basis.

Journey Home RESET
Community members at the announcement of Journey Home RESET

The confluence of partnerships and funding to support the needs of criminal justice-involved parents extends beyond incarcerated individuals. A team of community members recently announced, Journey Home: A RESET for Returning Citizens. Journey Home, a program of the United Way of Dane County through Madison-area Urban Ministry (MUM), helps citizens released from incarceration reintegrate successfully into their homes and communities. An updated plan that includes Residency, Employment, Support, Education, and Treatment (RESET) will include Parenting Inside Out for parents reconnecting with their children and families once released from prison.

According to the United Way, between 300-700 individuals return to Dane County from prison every year. The addition of a revitalized education strategy to the Journey Home Initiative aims to maintain a 10% or less yearly re-incarceration rate for participants. Supporting successful parenting through Parenting Inside Out programming is a critical addition to the revamped approach.

“What’s unique about this PIO is that it is evidenced-based but it also designed particularly for folks who are returning to the community,” Angela Jones, Director of Community Impact-Income at United Way of Dane County, told “This curriculum was developed by Dr. Mark Eddy and he was actually here in Madison with us to talk through the curriculum with us and talk through some of the research that he has done. It is now available in 33 different communities which we think is really fantastic.”

Dr. Charles is heading up a feasibility study funded by the National Institutes of Health to develop and implement a family-focused intervention that aims to increase parenting skills among fathers in reentry from prison and improve outcomes for children. Dr. Eddy provides consultation and support on that project because it includes an adaptation of Parenting Inside Out for use in the community. Dr. Charles and Dr. Julie Poehlmann-Tynan, Dorothy A. O’Brien Professor in Human Ecology, Professor, Human Development and Family Studies, brought Dr. Eddy to UW-Madison last year to give a public lecture on interventions with vulnerable youth and families. He also met with numerous key stakeholders that were interested in learning more about PIO including Dane County Jail, United Way of Dane County, and the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.

The updated approach that the United Way of Dane County and MUM will use starting next year was announced at an event on June 5th with Noble Wray, retired Chief of the Madison Police Department, and a panel of community members from United Way, Madison-area Urban Ministry, and Dr. Charles from the UW-Madison School of Social Work.

Dr. Charles at the kickoff of Journey Home RESET
Dr. Charles at the kickoff of Journey Home RESET

Assistant Professor Charles’s work focuses on improving outcomes for high risk children and families affected by the criminal justice system. Her research considers how social welfare policies and context affect family stability among economically vulnerable families. Her current work examines the intersection of father involvement, paternal reentry from prison, and child and family wellbeing.

“My goal is to contribute to building the evidence base about what works in real life settings to promote child and family well-being among those impacted by the criminal justice system,” Charles said. “This is most likely to occur if, as a researcher, I partner with those in practice, government, and policy settings to create and sustain the conditions needed to build and test innovative strategies that help us understand if what is being done is in fact working. This is a central part of what practice with communities and organizations is all about.”

Since its beginning in 2006, Journey Home has assisted 7,900 returning citizens. The efforts include one-on-one assistance from resource specialists and monthly service fairs. The addition of Parenting Inside Out is based on the most available and rigorous research and best practices that indicate strong family ties increase the likelihood of successful reintegration for returning prisoners and a reduction in recidivism. The United Way has invested in Madison-area Urban Ministry to provide the services to returning citizens.