The families are welcomed like a deluge in drought. Giggling children are showered in kisses, and wide-eyed babies admired and snuggled. While the moment is exhilarating, the reunions are bittersweet. Their time together is short, and it will be another month before the families can see each other without Plexiglas in the way, another month before hands of the mothers and daughters, fathers and sons can touch again.
Danielle Dallaire stands ready as the families sit down at the room at the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail and dive into “UNO,” “Play-Doh,” and board games. She delivers art supplies and toys to the tables and occasionally returns a wayward rubber ball, but mostly she lets the families just be together.
“They don’t need us to tell them what to do,” said Dallaire, an assistant professor of psychology at the College of William and Mary. “They’re just happy to see each other.”
Dallaire is a volunteer with the Colonial Service Board’s “Linkages: Building Strong Connections” program. The parental education program has sought to build better relationships between inmates at the regional jail and their families for the past eight years, and now, Dallaire is helping to evaluate just how well it’s doing.
Every week and once a month
Currently, about 20 inmates – men and women of various ages and ethnicities -- are participating in Linkages. Inmates apply to be part of the program, and VPRJ staff members determine who can participate.
The participants meet every week with the program’s “parent educators” to learn about parenting and communication skills, using a six-month curriculum. In the classroom setting, the inmates discuss a variety of topics, including appropriate ways to handle anger and how to creatively communicate with their children.
Once a month, a family night is held during which the inmates’ children and children’s caregivers can meet with the incarcerated parents in a relaxed yet supervised environment. Inmates and their families meet in the jail’s gymnasium and enjoy games and art projects with each other. Caregivers are given the option to participate in a support group during the evening, which gives the inmates a chance to spend some time alone with their children. Later, the families enjoy group games together, doing funny dances and playing with a huge, multi-colored parachute.
Lois “Lewi” Blosser, a parent educator and project director, takes photos of the families with a digital camera. Many of the children cherish the rare family photos, and one child has even collected his into an album.
Caregivers drive from as far away as North Carolina for the family nights. Often, it will be the only time during the month the parents and children see each other. Despite limited time together, Blosser said that she has seen many of the inmates put the lessons they have learned in the program to good use, building better relationships with their kids.
“Somebody who is incarcerated is definitely not a lost cause at all as a parent,” she said.
Dallaire, whose research focuses on children of incarcerated parents, has volunteered with Linkages for about a year. She volunteers during the family nights, lending a hand wherever she can and helping to lead the night’s caregiver support group.
“This gives the individuals who brought the children there the opportunity to be in a group and then talk about different things that they are dealing with or maybe their children are dealing with,” said Dallaire. “Usually it’s about parenting-specific things, but sometimes it’s more in general, what it’s like to deal with an incarcerated parent or spouse and how they are coping with this role as single parents.”
But when family night ends, another aspect of Dallaire’s role in the program begins – her role as an evaluator. Though a lack of funding has kept the program from doing a formal evaluation, Dallaire is using her expertise as a researcher to measure the effectiveness of Linkages. During each family night, the parent educators are asked to observe specific inmates and note how they interact with the children and caregivers. After the night is over, the educators meet to discuss how the evening went, and they fill out evaluation forms for each of the inmates. Those forms are passed on to Dallaire who charts each inmate’s progress.
“We have to graph each individual’s progress. Everyone starts out not only at a different point in terms of how long they have been in the program but also at different points in where they are in their life,” said Dallaire.
Though they have long had anecdotal evidence of the program’s success, using the tracking system, Dallaire and the program leaders can now see real evidence of Linkage’s impact.
“If you look at this kind of individual trajectory, you see a marked improvement the longer they are in the program,” said Dallaire.
Blosser said that she is very grateful for Dallaire’s assistance in evaluating the program and her overall work with Linkages.
“She brings a depth, a kind of a research, evaluation depth that we haven’t had,” said Blosser. “I have just gained so much from talking with her about ideas or things to try.”
For all she adds to Linkages, Dallaire has received much in return. For one thing, it has been a good way for her to put into practice the ideas about service-learning that she teaches as a Sharpe Community Scholars Program fellow.
“I hate to say that I am serving them because they are giving me the opportunity to get so much more out of it, but I do think of it as embodying a lot of the principles associated with service-learning by being an engaged citizen in a community and promoting education in the community,” she said.
Additionally, her interaction with the inmates, children and caregivers has given Dallaire a new perspective on her research.
“As a researcher, I try to look at overall trends,” she said. “This brings it back down to the level of the family and allows me to see up-close the impact of parental incarceration and visitation with incarcerated parents for children and families.”
Dallaire said that as a developmental psychologist, she often has the opportunity to discuss good and bad models of parenting in her classes with the help of textbooks. However, many of these parents don’t have that same kind of opportunity. Linkages, she said, is giving them a chance to “gain some insight into why they behaved in certain ways, and that can help their parenting or their communication and relationship with their child.”
“This is an opportunity and an intervention for people who maybe wouldn’t have otherwise had it,” said Dallaire.
Until next month
The games in the gymnasium have come to an end. Snacks are served and the families are able to enjoy a rare meal together, but the mood is getting darker. Finally, the officer announces that family night, for this month, is over. The parents and children embrace again. Some are smiling. Others, more solemn, say their goodbyes quickly, like ripping a band-aid off a healing wound.
But the sad feelings, Blosser said, are actually a good sign -- a sign that Linkages is helping to build connections between inmates and their children.
“Because that’s what good connections are made of,” she said. “Feeling.”