MU Extension program given grant funding to connect children, parents in prison

Wednesday, August 10, 2011 | 7:14 p.m. CDT; updated 10:24 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, August 10, 2011

COLUMBIA — Some parents currently incarcerated in Missouri Department of Corrections facilities will have the chance to strengthen relationships with their children sooner than expected.

MU Extension's 4-H Living Interactive Family Education, otherwise known as LIFE, was one of three initiatives chosen by The National Mentoring Program to receive funding from a $5 million grant to help children and incarcerated parents build stronger relationships.

The grant also supports 4-H Youth and Families With Promise based at Utah State University and 4-H Tech Wizards at Oregon State University. They receive funding from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

4-H LIFE works to improve the relationships of children with their incarcerated parents through supervised hands-on exercises at the correctional facilities' visiting areas, said 4-H Youth Development Specialist Lynna Lawson.

“The model that we use works with the children and their incarcerated parents to improve the outcome of their children,” Lawson said. “We don’t want the children to follow in the footsteps of their parents.”

Children with incarcerated parents are six times more likely to end up incarcerated at some point during their lives than those with non-incarcerated parents, Lawson said.

The program uses building components from the Building Strong Families program, whose mission is to strengthen the family unit.

Lucy Schrader, a Building Strong Families coordinator, said the program works to help adults and children find and build on strengths, provide life-skills information and workshops and to train facilitators.

The parent, legal guardian or caregiver has the opportunity to bring children in once a month to participate in activities with their parents during a structured time frame that can last anywhere from two to five hours.

“The activities encourage decision making, which teach the children to understand the impact their decisions make,” Lawson said. “Other activities include subject-matter activities, leadership activities and making sure there is positive social interaction between the child and parent.”

The meetings are referred to as "enhanced visitations," Lawson said. Unlike traditional visitations allowed at the facility, enhanced visitations offer much more interaction between the child and parent.

“The parent can get up and go to the vending machine or get up to get a ball or toy with their kid, and (enhanced visitation) even allows the child to sit on their parent's lap and the parent to put his or her arm around them, which is not allowed during traditional visitations,” Lawson said.

Stepchildren, nephews, nieces and grandchildren are allowed to be on the visitation list.

The program also offers classes for incarcerated adults to learn positive ways to discipline their children and effectively communicate with and encourage their children.

Lawson said 4-H LIFE will work with five corrections departments in Missouri:

  • Chillicothe Correctional Facility, Chillicothe 
  • Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center, Vandalia
  • Missouri Eastern Correctional Center, Pacific
  • Potosi Correctional Center, Potosi
  • Jefferson City Correctional Center, Jefferson City

There are a few restrictions on participating in 4-H LIFE services.

The incarcerated parents must be free of violations for a set amount of time, which may vary from three to six months, depending on the facility. Participation also depends on the severity of the crime for which a person was convicted. For instance, 4-H LIFE does not work with sex offenders.

Lawson said stronger relationships with children will also help prevent the adults from committing crimes upon their release.

“They go back to a community and are connected to their children and family and are less likely to recommit crimes,” she said.

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