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Allegheny County controller recommends more support for kids of incarcerated parents

Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA

An audit of programs designed to help children of people incarcerated at Allegheny County Jail recommends the county expands its outreach efforts and make support programs more accessible to incarcerated parents and their children.

The county’s Department of Human Services contracts with the nonprofits Amachi Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Mercy to provide mentoring and family support services meant to help minimize some of the negative outcomes associated with parental incarceration. But the programs could be more effective if they reached more people, said Allegheny County Controller Corey O’Connor.

“Whether their caregiver is in [jail] for a day or eight months, that child, as well as the family, is impacted,” O’Connor told WESA.

The controller’s office analyzed population data provided by DHS for a period from Jan. 1, 2021, though Sept. 30, 2022. During that time, 5,220 parents were incarcerated in the jail at some point, which affected 11,969 children. About 76% of the children impacted were under the age of 12 when their parents were first booked into the jail.

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The arrest of a parent is traumatic for many children. Research has found that children of incarcerated parents might experience a weaker parent-child bond, decreased academic performance, anxiety and stress. Some may also face homelessness and financial difficulties, or be incarcerated themselves.

The audit found that DHS has “no specific process in place to identify and contact incarcerated parents and their families to ensure they are aware of the services available through DHS, its providers, and community organizations.” It recommends that the county offer more support to children and families impacted by incarceration.

The controller’s analysis found that 39% of children received a DHS service within one year of their parent’s incarceration. O’Connor worries that the other 61% of children and their families might need help from the county, but don’t know where to get it.

In a written response, DHS noted that some included in the 61% figure likely don’t need county-provided services.

O’Connor’s office recommended that DHS create a form designed to capture information about parental status, family situation and contact information early in the intake process. They also recommended displaying posters on the pods and in other common spaces that give information about available services and sharing the Corrections Collective Resource Guide, a list of community-based organizations and other resources available in the area.

The programs that the county does offer from Amachi and Pittsburgh Mercy have “limited accessibility” due to funding issues and other barriers, the audit found.

Pittsburgh Mercy’s parenting classes are limited to people incarcerated for at least eight weeks, so they have time to finish the six week course. Due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, only a limited number of housing pods can attend each session, which has further reduced the number of attendees.

The extended family support program classes are only offered to people serving at least a three-month sentence, who have “medium or high risk to recidivate based on a validated assessment tool,” will be on county probation or parole after their services ends and are not involved with a specialty court.

A data analysis from the controller’s office found that only 31% of parents incarcerated between Jan. 1, 2021 and Sept. 30, 2022 were held between 61 days and 2 years, making them eligible to participate in family support parenting classes. Even fewer could join the extended family support program.

The majority of people could not enroll in parenting classes or the extended support program because of the minimum sentence requirements.

“The standard needs to change. Why is it that somebody is there for two months before [their] kids can get support? I don't think that's fair for the caregivers or the kids,” said O’Connor.

DHS Director Erin Dalton told WESA that although some recommendations from the controller, like collecting contact information about children of incarcerated people and their caregivers, “may not be desirable or feasible,” she agrees that directing more resources to people impacted by incarceration is necessary.

“Identifying people as parents and doing outreach and engagement specifically to them is not worth the risk when we could enhance efforts to reach all incarcerated people,” Dalton wrote in a response to the audit. She said the county’s programs for children and families should be available to all incarcerated people, some of whom might not identify as a “parent” but take on caregiving roles.

The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted many of the jail’s in-person classes and programs. Now, DHS is rebuilding its programs, including those meant to help children of incarcerated parents.

“I do think the jail can be a place where we provide information and access to resources for those people who are there,” Dalton said, adding that community organizations like Amachi and Pittsburgh Mercy are key for connecting residents with county services.

Both Dalton and the audit said DHS could display posters in common areas at the jail advertising county resources available. County 211 operators receive training and information about local programs and resources and could become a place for families of incarcerated people to go for help. Tablets offered to some incarcerated people could also be used as hubs to distribute more widely available parenting programs.

Other efforts will come from community groups, Dalton said.

“A lot of the work around supporting those kids who are left behind by incarceration, I think, really happens well in the community.” DHS’s strategy is “to really work with community partners and the community to make sure kids and families have what they need,” she said.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Amachi said the group is “thrilled that the Allegheny County Controller and DHS are taking steps to ensure more children with incarcerated parents can be identified and appropriately supported. The timing couldn’t be better for us as the COVID-19 pandemic and other restrictions have hindered our ability to connect with children and families during the period of this audit. Yet, their needs only became more dire. We are looking forward to the opportunity this audit brings to establish communications and a system whereby agencies like Amachi can gain ongoing access to support these children.”

Pittsburgh Mercy declined to comment.

A DHS spokesperson said the department is “working to scope out what services can be enhanced or added at the jail to meet the needs of more incarcerated people.” They expect to issue at least one request for proposals by summer 2023 focusing on “cognitive behavioral interventions and family support, among other services.”

Julia Zenkevich reports on Allegheny County government for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at