While Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services (DHS) contracts with non-profits to provide valuable services to children of incarcerated caregivers, eligibility requirements and a lack of outreach limits how many people can access these programs, an audit by the Office of Allegheny County Controller Corey O’Connor found.
“Incarceration of a caregiver seriously impacts children and their support systems,” O’Connor said. “These children must be prioritized when a caregiver interacts with the justice system.”
According to data provided by DHS, 5,220 caregivers were incarcerated in Allegheny County Jail between January 1, 2021 and September 30, 2022, impacting 11,969 children, more than three-quarters of which were 12 or younger. The number of families served by programs through Amachi Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Mercy during this same period, however, were far less.
These programs lead to positive outcomes, but only for caregivers housed inside the Jail for at least eight weeks. To be eligible for Pittsburgh Mercy’s Extended Family Support program, the caregiver must be enrolled in Family Support Program classes and the Jail’s Re-Entry Program, which each limit participation based on sentence length. Nearly three-quarters were not eligible to participate due to sentence length requirements.
The audit recommends DHS explore how it can engage caregivers incarcerated for on shorter sentences. This could include increasing information exchange and screenings for both existing programs and external community resources.
“Being in jail for even a single day puts a monumental strain on a family’s dynamic. DHS can and should address this critical time by reaching out to caregivers to provide information and confidentially assess their need for support,” O’Connor said.
In addition, the audit recommends DHS improve its data practices to securely communicate information across its network and expand its reach to people who do not currently access or are not eligible for resources. In cooperation with the Jail, DHS could explore how to develop relationships with caregivers as soon as they are booked, obtain basic information for family outreach during intake while protecting against exposure of sensitive family information, and establish methods to support caregivers and families in the immediate days they are separated.
While systemic distrust exists between caregivers and providers, DHS is equipped to combat this by communicating its goals—to serve County residents, including children, and to avoid interactions with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. This process can and should be informed by input from current or former incarcerated caregivers at all stages.
“As a Jail Oversight Board member, we must guarantee the welfare of Jail residents, which means boosting connection with families and support systems, recommending new programming, and increasing access to information and resources,” O’Connor said.
With federal funding of the Extended Family Support program set to expire, DHS should advocate for more government and private funding to continue existing programs and expand them. “This is about minimizing incarceration and empowering family support. We have the power and responsibility to help County residents achieve better outcomes, and we should commit to doing so,” O’Connor said. “DHS has been doing the work to support families. It’s now time to be dynamic and innovative in determining how we serve more people.”
About the Programs
DHS awarded Amachi $150,000 each year in 2021 and 2022 for its Mentoring and Ambassador programs. The Mentoring program supports positive development of children of incarcerated caregivers through providing mentors to meet with the child a minimum of four hours per month for a minimum of one year. The mentors establish goals and engage in activities conducive to positive youth development with an objective of reducing the likelihood of children entering the justice system.
Through the Ambassadors program, high school students of incarcerated caregivers are provided a minimum of 72 hours of educational enrichment and leadership during the year through semi-monthly workshops. The students also participate in events such as conferences, community forums, public hearings, debates, and culturally enriching activities.
Pittsburgh Mercy runs the Family Support Program and the Extended Family Support Program at the Jail. The Family Support Program provides six-week courses of parenting and relationship classes as well as increased communication opportunities for individuals incarcerated in the Jail. The targeted participants are those likely to be incarcerated in the Jail for at least eight weeks to permit them to complete the class.
The Extended Family Support Program provides support services and home visits for the children and families of the incarcerated parent. A monthly support group and one to two monthly outings are held for children and their caregivers. A Family Support Specialist will follow-up with the family after the parent returns home from the Jail.
In 2021 and 2022, DHS paid Pittsburgh Mercy $127,795 and $97,964, respectively, for the Family Support Program. In 2018, DHS received a grant for $748,902 from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to fund the Extended Family Support Program through Pittsburgh Mercy through September 30, 2023.