By Dr. Kimberly Collica-Cox, Associate Professor, Pace University’s Dyson College, Criminal Justice Department; Chief Investigator for Parenting, Prison, and Pups
The Parenting, Prison and Pups Program (PPP) is a combination of several components that work together to benefit incarcerated women. The program is a partnership between Pace University, The Good Dog Foundation, the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC - a federal jail) and the Westchester County Department of Correction (WCDOC - a county jail). The PPP is a first-ever prison-based parenting program that is enhanced by the inclusion of Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT).
Incarcerated women face unique challenges. Overwhelmingly, they are mothers and were primary caregivers prior to incarceration. Prison-based parenting programs can help women develop healthy bonds with their children by empowering mothers to feel more confident about their parenting skills by increasing their knowledge of effective parenting techniques and by promoting a healthy parent-child relationship. These programs offer support and attempt to lessen the emotional effects surrounding the separation from their children. A parenting program, in a correctional setting, as part of a larger reunification focus, will enable mothers to maintain a bond with their children, which is beneficial for the mother and the child alike. Incarceration damages the child-parent attachment. Since children of incarcerated mothers are at a high risk for future incarceration, it is important for children to maintain a bond with their mother to reduce intergenerational offending. Relationships with their children can serve as a vehicle toward criminal desistance for female offenders. By improving a woman’s parenting skills and mitigating her future criminality, we also improve the future success of her children.
The PPP incorporates undergraduate Pace students as teaching assistants to help with program delivery. As part of a service learning Corrections course, the program introduces students to the experience of incarceration, a rare opportunity, to help them become caring professionals. They come to understand that regardless of their career choices within the criminal justice system, the decisions they make as lawyers, police officers, case managers, etc., will directly impact this population of women.
As you can imagine, coordinating numerous partner organizations was not simple. We began working on this program in the fall of 2015 but it was not until March 2017 that I launched the first “control” group of 12 female inmates at MCC using the parenting curriculum without AAT. The program provides us with a platform to conduct research on AAT, a growing field that is in need of more empirical data. Strong social science research compares a treatment group to a control group. The first class, recently concluded at MCC, serves as one control group.
In spite of the delays and numerous challenges and the fact that we are in the control phase, not the test phase, PPP has already made an impact on the lives of our student inmate mothers and our Pace service learning students. What began as a somewhat disconnected and slightly disinterested and occasionally angry group of strangers, morphed, by our third class, into a community of mothers who cared and supported one another through this process. Confidentiality, which is difficult to maintain in the correctional environment, was never broken, demonstrating the true commitment of these moms. We laughed, we cried, and we shared. We spoke about being broken. We encouraged women to break down in our safe space of community but recognized that we would not remain broken. Regardless of past trauma, mistakes, regrets, or shame, each woman worked through her issues week by week with the support of her sisters. We had done the impossible – we created a supportive caring community within a jail. Such communities are easier to develop in a prison, where women have the luxury of time to develop deep and trusting connections with one another. In the jail setting, a place where people come and go, is challenging, appeared improbable but, against all odds, was achieved. We will deliver the course with the AAT starting in the spring of 2018. Given the positive outcomes of the control group, the treatment group also promises to be successful.
The control group of women completed 14 lessons – Parenting Styles; Effective Speaking; Effective Listening; Effective Problem Solving; Understanding the Parent and Child’s Job; Bonding Through Play; Directions and Encouragement; Rewards and Consequences; Time Out With Back-Up Privilege Removal; Yoga, Meditation and Stress Management; Going Home and Expectations With their Children; Healthy Adult Relationships; and the Family Reunification Day. The women in the class, including two who did not want to be there at the beginning, really worked very diligently to enhance their parenting skills and to begin to deal with guilt that they felt as a result of choices which led to their separation from their children. The Pace students felt the change was transformative and each Pace student stated this was the best class at Pace. It really helped to provide them with a realistic view of corrections and, as expected, it was completely different from what they previously imagined. Our moms, who were hesitant about having students in the class, really began to appreciate their presence, their help and their insight.
In fact, PPP became so important to our inmate students, they requested that Good Dog mount a website their families could visit, proving our inmate mothers and grandmothers were working hard to improve parenting skills while in prison.
One woman, who broke down in tears on our first class, worked on repairing the relationship between her family and her in-law’s family. By the end of our class, the lines of communication, once firmly closed, began to open. Another woman, afraid of telling her grandchild about where she was, made the decision to be honest. Although initially upset, the grandson did not rescind his love or his desire to see his grandmother. Another woman, whose son would not talk to her because he said he hated her, began talking to her by the end of our class. Despite her depression, the group’s encouragement motivated her to be consistent in reaching out to him and in utilizing the skills we learned in class; although he has not forgiven her, he will now answer the phone when she calls. Another woman who had difficulty communicating with her child’s caregiver, utilized the skills we learned in class regarding effective communication and was able to receive a visit from her child. As each woman faced challenges, she brought these challenges to the group. The group worked actively to help problem solve and the women would report on their progress. I have to say the love, care and concern shown by each woman throughout our course was very touching. They thanked us after each visit and told us they looked forward to each visit. The Pace students and I looked forward to our visits as well. The hard work and progress of each mom really motivated us to put 100% of our time and energy into making this program successful. During one of our classes, I was given the MCC Volunteer of the Year Award. It was one of the best moments of my professional career.
We recently had our reunification day. Families came to see their loved ones graduate with their parenting certificates. Not all families were present but even if the women do not have anyone visiting, they all made a commitment to attend and to help me work with the children who were able to visit. It is my hope that they will continue to serve as a support for one another, long after our class is completed. I will return to check in with them. Some of them are leaving in the next weeks to begin their new lives. In fall 2017 we will begin the second control group training at the jail in Westchester County, with another group of women. This program serves as the chance for many new beginnings and for the true opportunity to believe when we have a bad day, we can start our day over anytime we like, and we can begin to mend and heal not only the relationships we have with our families and our children, but most importantly, the relationship we have with ourselves.