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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

More evidence against increasing incarcerations

In the past, I have written about child protection issues that arise from a parent being incarcerated. These problems include fracturing family functioning, increasing the economic and social burden on the family and resulting in stresses that can then lead to neglect and other forms of maltreatment. Certainly, a case can be made that the needs of society may over ride those concerns, particularly with violent and repeat offenders. Thus, a new study by the PEW Centre on the States offers some fresh and articulate focus on the possible costs and benefits of incarceration.

The study, titled, Time Served, The high costs, low return of longer prison sentences, concludes that for a substantial number of offenders, "there is little or no evidence that keeping them locked up longer prevents additional crime" (p.4). That is a fairly significant conclusion particularly given the very high costs associated with incarceration. They also note that the public has become less focused on punishment and more focused on cost effectiveness and the use of tools to reduce recidivism. Good risk assessment can determine who is best for release and supervision.

The impact for families is not really measured in this work. But one also has to wonder what impact that children might have by a parent whose involvement with the criminal justice system is more focused on helping the parent address mental health or addiction issues. What lessons are there for the child? A society that supports positive change or one that is focused on punishment.

Consider that between 1990 and 2010, the US prison population grew by 109% at an average cost of around $24,000 per prisoner. They estimate that the extra time served without benefit is costing the US about $10 billion.

The argument is not about the violent offender who is likely to repeat his/her crime. It is about carefully determining who belongs in prison because reform will be unlikely to succeed. The report separates that there is a large amount of crime that is related to addictions, mental health and poverty. Treat the problem and your reduce the probability of further crime.

They also identify that work done to prepare the lower risk offender for reintegration into the community will positively impact the recidivism rate. Inmates who are poorly prepared for release struggle with integration and are then at higher risk to reoffend.  Creating a link to a rehabilitative approach seems to be socially desirable but also appears to have strong positive impacts on the costs of managing the criminal justice system. In times of high economic stress in countries, finding ways to reduce prison populations will reduce government expenditures. What this research tells us is that can be done without increasing risk to communities.

The report is available on the web through the PEW website.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Drug Courts can be quite effective fir child protection

Some lovely new research by Bruns et al. has shown that drug courts can be quite effective in working with substance abusing parents in the child protection system. This matters. As they point out, substance abuse is one of the most significant issues in child protection. They note prior research showing that it is related to higher involvement in foster care; longer duration in care and poorer reunification rates. In addition, they highlight that it can often take many months before parents are connected to needed treatment resources

Drug Treatment Courts have a solid history of working within the criminal court system in various jurisdictions.

The aim of most drug courts is to use the court process to facilitate a coordinated, team-based, and inter- disciplinary approach to treat individuals who have been charged with an offense related to their addiction or substance involvement (p.2).

Family Drug Treatment Courts aim to increase reunification, family safety as well as parental abstinence. To my knowledge, they are not yet common within the child protection system, so this review may well assist in raising such an approach as an important tool for child protection systems.

A study of four FTDCs in sites across the United States found that participants enrolled in treatment more quickly, received treat- ment services for a longer mean duration, and were more likely to complete treatment successfully than parents in regular dependency courts. (p.3).

However, the published research data base remains small and is not been subject to the kind of disciplined review that might give long term confidence. The present study helps to fill the gap and shows positive results including entering treatment faster, completing and having better child protection outcomes. The children were more frequently returned to parental care.

This promising research adds to the idea that structured, comprehensive substance abuse interventions that include the courts can substantially improve outcomes. This might be an approach that is worth considering in more jurisdictions.


Bruns, E.J.,, Pullmann, M.D., Weathers, E.S., Wirschem, M.L. &. Murphy, J.K. (2012). Effects of a multidisciplinary family treatment drug court on child and family outcomes: Results of a quasi-experimental study. Child Maltreatment, In Press. doi: 10.1177/1077559512454216


Friday, August 3, 2012

Maybe abstinence sex education is harmful

There has been a movement in the religious right to push teenagers to commit to sexual abstinence. Per se, that does not seem like a negative thing. Trying to ensure that teenagers do not find themselves in unwanted parenthood or having to face decisions about what to do with an unwanted pregnancy seem like worthy goals.

Regrettably, that same movement would have abstinence education replace other forms of sexual education. I got to think about this after two recent experiences. The first was reading the 2005 book by Lisa Aronson Fontes, Child abuse and culture. She made reference to a doctoral dissertation by McDonald in 2004 which noted that most sex education occurs in adolescence which is after most victims of sexual abuse have been victimized. Fontes cogently points out that this further shames the victim who did not engage in sexual behavior by choice – but by coercion and force. What then are they to make of statements that they must save themselves for marriage and commit to abstinence? They are already sexually involved because of the abuse.

The second event was meeting with the Tulir Centre for Prevention and Healing of Sexual Abuse . Located in Chennai, India they talk about how victims are often quite young and clearly before they can receive sex education. Indeed, in many cases, they are not in a position to even understand what consent is about.

Sex education that offers children and teenagers information on choices but also helps victims to separate forced sex from sex by choice can help to prevent the unwanted pregnancies. These in turn can add to the children involved in child protection systems – but so too can rapes and molestation. Sex education should add to the efforts to prevent and heal sexual abuse and trauma. It should not be a way in which victims are then re-victimized.