Washington’s Parenting Sentencing Alternative: A strengths-based approach to supervision

A sentencing alternative for parents in Washington State is showing great potential for reducing the rate at which parents return to prison after successfully completing the program. In 2010, the state Legislature passed the Parenting Sentencing Alternative, which has two components that allow parents of minor children to either avoid prison or to transfer early from prison onto electronic monitoring at home to parent. The Family and Offender Sentencing Alternative (FOSA) is a judicial sentencing option where judges can waive a sentence within the standard range and impose 12 months of community custody along with conditions for treatment and programming for eligible offenders who otherwise face a prison sentence. The other, called the Community Parenting Alternative (CPA), is a prison-based option that allows the Department of Corrections to transfer an offender home on electronic monitoring for up to the last 12 months of his or her prison sentence in order to parent. 

When establishing this alterative, we recognized that working with offenders as well as their children and family more directly created a need to interact differently and more intensely. We also recognized that cross-systems collaboration was essential to develop and implement a successful program. Washington DOC operates from a strengths perspective and utilizes Solution-Based Case Management in working with this population. Given that 85 percent of the population receives services from our state’s Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), it became clear that use of similar language and strategies would significantly benefit our outcomes. In addition to training in core correctional practices and utilizing evidence-based strategies, supervising Community Corrections Officers were provided additional training in social work strategies and practices in order to ensure child safety. We adopted as the foundation within the program two operating principles:

  • A Present Parenting Model where each offender is first clean and sober and second learning skills and abilities to put their kids as their first priority in managing their daily lives. This involves learning to balance nutrition, well-being, work, school/homework, providing structure and consistency in addressing daily routine and discipline, and doing what is in the best interest of their children. It also includes reading with their children each day for at least 20 minutes and/or doing homework, depending on the developmental stage of their children, and having family dinners without distraction of television or other technology and electronics.
  • Use of the Five Protective Factors for Strengthening FamiliesModel:
    1. Parental Resilience – A parent’s capacity for resilience can affect how a parent deals with stress. Resilience is the ability to manage and bounce back from all types of challenges that emerge in every family’s life. It means finding ways to solve problems, building and sustaining trusting relationships including relationships with your own child, and knowing how to seek help when necessary.
    2. Social Connections– Networks of support are essential to parents and also offer opportunities for people to “give back,” an important part of self- esteem as well as a benefit for the community. Isolated families may need extra help in reaching out to build positive relationships.
    3. Concrete Support in Times of Need– Meeting basic economic needs like food, shelter, clothing and health care is essential for families to thrive. Likewise, when families encounter a crisis such as domestic violence, mental illness or substance abuse, adequate services and supports need to be in place to provide stability, treatment and help for family members to get through the crisis.
    4. Knowledge of Parenting and Child Development– Accurate information about child development and appropriate expectations for children’s behavior at every age help parents see their children in a positive light and promote their healthy development. Studies show information is most effective when it comes at the precise time parents need it to understand their own children. Parents who experienced harsh discipline or other negative childhood experiences may need extra help to change the parenting patterns they learned as children.
    5. Social and Emotional Competence of Children– A child’s ability to positively interact with others, self-regulate their behavior and effectively communicate their feelings has a positive impact on their relationships with their family, other adults and peers. Challenging behaviors or delayed developments create extra stress for families, so early identification and assistance for both parents and children can head off negative results and keep development on track.

We primarily collaborate with DSHS’s Children’s Administration division to provide child welfare history and consultation on cases; the Division of Behavioral Health and Recovery to provide chemical dependency and mental health treatment history in the community; and the Department of Early Learning for ongoing training and expertise with families. Because of the CPA portion of the alternative’s unique statutory responsibility to determine the “best interest of the child,” DOC formulated a multi-disciplinary screening committee that meets monthly to review and make recommendations of approval for participation. This committee consists of the above-mentioned partners as well as others who are involved with children and families or are experts in child development and well-being. Along with approval recommendations, this committee also assists in structuringthe needs and community resources for program participants. 

After four years of implementing this alternative, we have seen promising outcomes in the way offenders respond and in the rate of new felony convictions. Since inception, 274 offenders have successfully completed the program. Of that number, only 16 have returned to prison on a new felony conviction (6 percent). Six (6) additional offenders have been convicted of a new felony but not sent to prison. That means, overall, 22 offenders have committed a new felony (8 percent). Of those 22 offenders, the vast majority are female; in fact, only two male offenders have committed a new felony in that time period and no males have committed a felony that resulted in a new prison sentence.

Although we are early in predicting overall results, we believe that by taking a strengths-based approach and working with offenders using a blend of correctional practices and social work principles, we have a successful strategy for working with these offenders and their families.

Susie Leavell, Program Administrator, Washington State Department of Corrections

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