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Professor works to align services for children of prisoners

Monday, March 24, 2014

LAWRENCE — A University of Kansas professor has found that children of prisoners and the social service organizations that provide services to them don’t necessarily agree on what needs are most important. She hopes to help improve services for youths across the country.

Toni Johnson, associate professor of social welfare at KU, led a study in which she surveyed adolescent children who have a parent in prison and social workers who provide services for youth. While the youth identified basic needs such as housing and food as most important, providers rated mental health and mentoring services as the most important. Both services are important, but the disparity can be problematic as there are not widely available interventions to help children of prisoners, a substantial population.

“We incarcerate more of our population than any other industrialized nation on Earth,” Johnson said of the United States. “We might not realize it, but almost all of us know someone who has been affected by having a parent in prison. We need to meet their basic needs, but we also need to think about the future.”

In the United States, approximately 55 percent of male prisoners and 75 percent of female prisoners have children under the age of 18. When a youth has at least one parent in prison, a host of social problems can result, most notably among them poverty, substance abuse, school drop out, mental health disorders and juvenile detention. In recent years, efforts to help children of prisoners at the federal level have focused largely on providing mentoring. Johnson said the findings of her study in Topeka, while not generalized for a national level, show that there is likely more widespread disagreement on services. She has researched issues relating to children of prisoners nationwide and hopes to expand her work to specifically address whether social service programs are meeting the needs of such youth throughout the country.

“I want to ask if we are providing the right kinds of services. These kids need a whole lot more than just mentoring,” Johnson said. “I want to find out what programs are out there and if they’re meeting families’ needs. And then we need to inform the federal government on what we find.”

Johnson advocates for establishing savings accounts for children of prisoners that would be seeded with an initial contribution. She’s researching pilot programs that provide such services to learn how effective they are in helping the youths reach college and escape poverty. Research by Johnson’s colleagues in the School of Social Welfare has shown that children of low-income families that have savings are much more likely to attend college than their peers who do not, even if the amount of savings is small. Their work also has shown that low-income families are able to save and that young people hold a more positive attitude toward their future when they know they have savings.

Johnson has presented her findings to the International Conference on Social Work in Health and Mental Health, and she will continue to make her findings available to social work providers as she continues her project. A daughter of a bail bondsman, she has long been interested in children and families of prisoners. Throughout her career she has worked as a social work provider, with female prisoners, battered women and supervised programs that provide services to families of prisoners. In future research she hopes to work with children of prisoners who have achieved successes such as reaching and graduating from college to find out how their experiences can help younger youths in similar circumstances. The idea came after taking her students to visit a women’s prison as part of class.

“Inevitably, one or two of my students would confide to me that they’ve had a parent in prison. I’d like to learn more from them,” Johnson said. “And I’d like to persuade policy makers, social workers and others just how important this population is. These kids have more negative outcomes than whose parents have separated because of divorce or other reasons.”

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