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Innovative jail program to support children of incarcerated parents expands

April is Second Chance Month in Minnesota, where one in six children are impacted by parental incarceration

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and the University of Minnesota (UMN) have worked to more than double the number of Minnesota counties offering a program that helps children keep family ties to incarcerated parents.

The work to support families continues with county jails in Carlton, Olmsted, Ramsey, Renville, Stearns, and Sherburne County, and is now launching in Brown, McLeod, Nicollet, Todd, Hennepin, St. Louis, Crow Wing and Scott County facilities.

The expansion of the Minnesota model jail practices learning community was made possible by increased funding approved in 2023, as well as continued support through the Department of Justice, and through partnerships with the Minnesota Sheriff’s Association and researchers from the UM and Wilder Research.

The program focuses on improving the health of children and their incarcerated parents by facilitating visits as well as having parents complete parenting education programs in and outside of jail. In addition, the Minnesota model jail practices learning community brings together local jails and community partners to learn best practices, share resources and work to reduce the negative effects of parental incarceration on children and families in their counties.

“We want to celebrate these participating counties and the parents in this program for their commitment to achieving the health benefits that can happen when we keep families connected during incarceration,” said Minnesota Commissioner of Health Dr. Brooke Cunningham. “We particularly want to highlight this expansion now as April is Second Chance Month, which recognizes the efforts to ensure the safe and successful re-entry of Minnesotans returning home from incarceration.”

In Minnesota, one in six children are impacted by parental incarceration, according to the Minnesota Student Survey. Having an incarcerated parent is the second most common adverse childhood experience among Minnesota youth. Parental incarceration can lead to an increased risk of illness, poor mental health, substance use and misuse, and poor academic outcomes among children. To learn more, visit the research section of the MDH webpage Supporting Children of Incarcerated Parents.

However, staying connected during the time of incarceration can reduce some of the negative health and other impacts on children.

“A parent’s incarceration can often cause a ‘domino effect’ for kids – they may have to move homes, change schools, be separated from siblings,” said Dr. Rebecca Shlafer, associate professor at the University of Minnesota, Department of Pediatrics. “They benefit from having support to address their complex experiences and emotions when a parent goes to prison or jail.”

Researchers at the University of Minnesota also found in 2017 that about two-thirds of adults in Minnesota jails were parents with children younger than age 18. Most of these parents lived with at least one of their children before arrest, and a majority were interested in parenting education.

The model jail practices learning community pilot project began in 2019, thanks to an initial grant from the Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Second Chance Act. Participating jails have made significant improvements during the last three years, despite launching the program during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Key highlights of these programs include increased parent-child visits to strengthen the relationship between incarcerated parents and their children, expanded parent education training and education about supports for children and caregivers. Several jails have also implemented changes to create more family-friendly lobby and visiting spaces, including two jails that are creating a separate secure entry and in-person visiting room for families. Minnesota model jail practices learning community participants have also increased staff awareness and training about the issues surrounding parent incarceration.

“A lot of people in our jails are moms, dads,” said James Stuart, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriff’s Association. “It’s important for us to understand that when a family member goes to jail, the whole family serves time. When we take these steps for parents, and children stay connected, it can impact re-entry, recidivism and, most importantly, it can impact that child throughout their entire life.”

Toolkits, presentations, courses and details about individual jail efforts from the first three years of the project are available on the MDH website Supporting Children of Incarcerated Parents.



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