Promising Practices for Strengthening Families Affected by Parental Incarceration

A Review of the Literature


Over 5 million American children under the age of 18 years, a disproportionate number of whom are Black or Latino, have had a residential parent jailed or incarcerated. While a number of existing studies identify parental incarceration as a key risk factor for poor child and family outcomes, there is more limited information describing programs that aim to promote positive outcomes for children with parents involved in the criminal justice system. This literature review analyzes published studies about family strengthening programs that seek to maintain and build healthy relationships between parents who are incarcerated and their children. The review is organized by six key areas of programmatic focus that the research team identified based on an initial scan of the literature, consultations with experts and programs in the field, and guidance from the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.[1]

Primary Research Questions

This literature review addresses the following three overarching research questions:

  1. What areas should family strengthening programs explicitly address in their models?
  2. What programs and practices are currently being used to strengthen families involved with the justice system?
  3. What does the research and evidence indicate about programs that aim to strengthen families involved with the justice system?


The purpose of this review is to summarize the research and evaluation literature on programs that aim to strengthen families involved in the justice system. This review focuses on family strengthening programs, defined as programs that seek to maintain and build healthy relationships between parents who are incarcerated and their children. To this end, the research team identified six key focus areas for this review based on consultations with experts from a wide range of disciplines including child development, parenting, and criminology. The findings presented in this review identify key gaps in the knowledge base on family strengthening programs, which can help programs improve their models and help researchers more rigorously study these programs’ impacts on children and families in the future.

Key Findings

  • It is especially valuable for family strengthening programs to address six key focus areas. Based on an initial scan of the literature and consultations with a diverse set of experts and programs in the field, including the ACF, the research team identified the following six key focus areas: (1) engaging non-incarcerated caregivers, (2) considering children’s ages in program design, (3) considering a parent’s gender and role, (4) engaging in cross-system collaboration, (5) implementing strategies to engage parents who are incarcerated and their families, and (6) promoting families’ financial stability.
  • The review included studies of 59 family strengthening programs for families involved with the criminal justice system. All programs addressed at least one of the six key focus areas. Programs most frequently implemented strategies to engage parents involved with the criminal justice system and considered a parent’s gender and role. Fewer programs considered children’s ages in program design and engaged nonincarcerated caregivers. And still fewer programs promoted families’ financial stability or engaged in cross-system collaboration as part of the program model.
  • However, research examining the outcomes or impacts of family strengthening programs that address the six key focus areas is limited. More such research is needed. The review highlights a number of examples where program models address one of the six key focus areas. Twenty-seven of the 59 programs included in the review had not participated in an evaluation that examined whether they improved outcomes for children and families. Twenty-five of the programs had data showing improvements in at least one outcome over the program’s duration. However, only seven programs improved at least one outcome in an impact study involving a comparison group.


The research team used a targeted, systematic approach to identify relevant literature. The team created a set of search terms specifically aligned with the six key focus areas that it used to identify relevant peer-reviewed journal articles and reports published between 2007 and 2018 in a range of databases. In addition, selected journal articles or reports had to include research on programs with a theory of change, logic model, or motivation for program services that corresponded to the core goal of strengthening families involved in the criminal justice system. The team also included systematic reviews and meta-analyses, which described multiple programs and prior research. The review excluded research on programs for incarcerated individuals that did not explicitly seek to promote family strengthening—including some employment programs, individual mental health services, and substance abuse services—even though these programs have the potential to strengthen outcomes for families by first improving other outcomes for individuals. The search resulted in 110 articles that the research team closely reviewed and analyzed in order to describe the content of each program and assess the rigorousness of each program evaluation.


[1]The authors use the term “family strengthening” throughout this review to align with the terminology in the literature. The term conveys that all family and parent-child relationships—regardless of a parent’s involvement with the criminal justice system—can be strengthened with support. This review addresses the need for more systematic information on programs that promote positive outcomes for children whose parents are involved in the criminal justice. Such programs typically aim to improve the quality of the relationship between incarcerated parents and their children as a key component of their program models. Accordingly, the research team excluded programs from this review that did not focus on the parent-child relationship or include programming to support children in some way.