Recently, the Indiana Department of Correction’s Division of Youth Services (DYS) altered its policies, allowing family visitations as many as six times a week. The study, funded by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), will assess the links between increased family visits and behavioral and educational outcomes for DYS residents.
“We reached out to Indiana and asked if we could apply for this federal grant to study them, because what they’re doing is very innovative and certainly not the standard practice across the country,” Margaret diZerega, director of Vera’s Family Justice Program, told JJIE.
Two years ago, the state’s DYS was selected as a pilot site for Vera’s “family engagement standards,” which the organization developed alongside the Performance-based Standards Learning Institute. The DYS pinpointed visitation as an area the agency could improve upon, and a subsequent policy update last year resulted in the doubling of facility visitation rates.
“They made some pretty significant policy changes at the beginning of last year, so that families were able to visit almost as often as they wanted,” diZerega said. “So we’re interested in learning what the impact of that policy change is.”
Researchers will look at administrative data and conduct interviews with staffers, incarcerated youths and their families as part of the upcoming project. To measure the possible impact of visitations on recidivism, two cohorts will be studied; youth released from DYS custody between 2010 and 2012, before the visitation policies were updated, and youth released in 2013, after the policy change. Dr. Ryan Shanahan, senior program associate for the Family Justice Program, said an additional one-year-out recidivism study may be conducted once the two-year DYS study concludes.
Shanahan said she is optimistic that the study will provide greater evidence for a link between family visits and improved resident outcomes. “There’s a dearth of this kind of research in the field, and while criminal justice administrators across the country intuitively know that having more family contact can lead to better outcomes for the youth in their care, it would be great to have evidence that backs that up,” she said.
Council of Juvenile Corrections Administrators’ (CJCA) Ned Loughran said that increased family visitations can only be viewed as a positive for young people in the nation’s juvenile justice facilities.
“It has a calming influence on kids,” Loughran said. “They’re not going to act out if they know their parents are going to be there this week, and the next week and the week after.”
Isolating youths from family contacts may constitute a formula for juvenile misbehavior, he said. “I’ve been in juvenile corrections for almost 40 years and this is one of those ideas whose time has come, and it came a lot later than it should have come,” he said. “The facilities must be open to the parents; much more welcoming of them. … They must make them a part of their youth’s rehabilitation.”
Previous Vera research conducted in Ohio indicated a potential connection between expanded family visitations and educational and behavioral outcomes for its DYS residents. Through the study, diZerega believes Indiana is in a position to “set a new tone” for the nation’s juvenile justice agencies.
“We often get asked why family contact matters for youth in facilities, and I think to be able to learn through this study is one way we can answer that question,” she said. “Through what we learn from this study, we can provide some evidence to inform any kind of policy change that other jurisdictions might want to make.”