Building Opportunities for Justice Involved Parents
By Sharon Wardale-Trejo, Regional Director, Merced/Mariposa Regional DCSS
Over 5 million American children have had an incarcerated parent. Each year, over 600,000 people are released from Federal and State prisons and roughly 10.6 million people will cycle through local jails nationwide. How are child support programs reaching out to incarcerated parents? When counties are asked what they are doing to connect with parents currently incarcerated or recently released you’ll hear a broad range of activities including regular visits to in-custody parents and active participation with programs offered to the formerly incarcerated or you may hear that for a variety of reasons local agencies have no regular activities engaging with justice involved parents, either while in a facility or once they are released. This article will highlight some of the progressive activities being performed by the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services’ Division of Child Support.
Several years ago, Washington made a concentrated effort to alter their statewide services for justice involved parents. The goal of this effort was to assist parents with addressing barriers, so they were more likely to be able to pay his or her child support obligation. To begin this process they found it was important that they first better understand the needs of justice involved parents and then alter their services to adapt to those needs.
Part of this understanding utilized a reentry simulation developed by a workgroup in Springfield, MO called “Reentry & Resources”. The reentry simulation walked participants through a month in the life of a recently incarcerated person. It was created to educate service providers and the general public about the barriers faced by many of those who have an incarceration history. The participants were assigned an identity and asked to meet many requirements, including meeting with a probation officer, treatment, employment, and housing obligations. This enlightening simulation offered a glimpse of the experience many formerly incarcerated parents face as they navigate the requirements of probation or parole. Having personally experienced this simulation I can say though only an hour long; the simulation is very realistic and helps participants foster empathy.
When asked about providing services to justice involved parents, Mary Cooper, the Child Support Program Manager from the Spokane Office of the Division of Child Support responsible for the reentry program activities emphasized the critical need for partnerships. She noted in a recent Western Intergovernmental Child Support Engagement Council (WICSEC) presentation, “We are one piece of the puzzle for those who are trying to overcome the barrier of an incarceration history, and we need to collaborate with other agencies, community service providers, and the customers themselves to understand how our role can contribute to their successful re-entry.”
One program the Division of Child Support actively participates on is the Community Partners for Transition Services (CPTS). Founded by a formerly incarcerated individual, this county-based program is all about partnerships. The list of partners includes state and federal agencies, county and city agencies, community organizations, service providers and non-governmental organizations working with formerly incarcerated individuals. With a wide range of representation including workforce and career services, education, social and health services, child support, law enforcement and advocacy groups, the program is able to address many barriers facing justice involved individuals. Each entity’s voice is considered equally important. This program meets monthly to share information and resources.
Another program that has been very active in the State of Washington is the Alternative Solutions Program, a holistic, person-centric program implemented by Washington State Division of Child Support in 2014. Once again, partnerships are very important, as the goal of our Alternative Solutions staff is to remove barriers for those parents who are struggling and needing help in many areas. Parents self-refer into the program. The Alternative Solutions case managers handle a much smaller caseload than the regular Support Enforcement Officers, to allow them to fully engage with customers and provide in-depth support and guidance. The Alternative Solutions case managers work to identify a variety of barriers and provide parents with assistance to navigate the services available to assist them with addressing those barriers. The Alternative Solutions case managers utilize a database of over 4,300 community-based resources when identifying potential services. Since its inception in July 2014, the Alternative Solution program has assisted over 3,080 non-custodial parents. They have also been able to remove over $2 million dollars in arrears debt through a write-off program. As Ms. Cooper notes, “It’s really about meeting people where they are and providing the help they need to move forward.”
There are four other initiatives that Washington is working on that are either in pre-implementation stage or early implementation stage.
- The Partnership for Re-Employment Project is a collaboration with the Employment Security Department, specifically what is called Washington WorkSource. For those parents who have removed most of their barriers and are ready to return to work, WorkSource is available to provide specialized work search assistance. While this program is available to the entirety of their caseload, Washington is seeing that more than 50% of those who take advantage of services have an incarceration history. The program has been in place in Pierce County, Washington, for approximately three years and they have achieved a 72% return to work success rate for those who actively participate in the program.
- Early Intervention – Washington does not currently have a law similar to Family Code 4007.5 and as such, child support obligations continue to accrue while a parent is incarcerated unless they request a modification. Washington is currently working on a program that would allow a Support Enforcement Officer to visit the Washington Corrections Center on a weekly basis. Each person that enters the prison system in Washington passes through the Washington Corrections Center before being placed in the appropriate institution. They spend 55 days on average at this facility in Shelton, Washington. The goal is to interface with them during this time to start the modification process as early as possible, explore the appropriateness of write-off, and educate them on what they can expect to happen to their child support obligation while they are incarcerated. It’s a proactive approach to removing barriers to re-entry by not letting arrears build up on the first place. In essence, Washington is hoping to help incarcerated people begin to build a re-entry plan as soon as they enter the prison system.
- The Strength in Families Program is a grant-based program that partners with incarcerated parents who are within six months from their release date. The goal is to develop skills that focus on positive parenting, healthy relationships and economic stability. The parents in this program may also work with our Alternative Solutions Program for barrier removal. One of the goals of this project is to re-unite the parent with their children and families.
- The Solutions for Transitioning Parents Program is a partnership with South Seattle College and is designed for previously incarcerated adults in King County who are job ready. The customer will be given a navigator at the college and will be assisted with job search, suitable housing, and referrals for removal of other barriers.
Each of these initiatives has enabled the Division of Child Support to be an active partner in programs aimed at developing positive outcomes for justice involved individuals. If the reentry simulation is something you may be interested in bringing to your organization, you can attend a session at the 2019 CSDA Annual Training Conference and Expo where you can experience the simulation firsthand. If you’re interested in learning more about any of Washington’s specific programs, you can contact Mary Cooper directly by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at (509) 363-4985.