Voinovich School to evaluate success of new application for family-based prevention program

Daniel Kington
March 7, 2016

More than 50,000 children in Ohio have a parent who is incarcerated. These children face serious challenges, according to the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

“Growing up with an incarcerated parent is associated with a variety of negative outcomes resulting from financial instability, changes in family structure and societal stigma,” Tracy Plouck, director of the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, said in a recent press release. “Children with a parent in prison also may face a number of other challenging circumstances such as witnessing drug abuse or violence in the home or in their community. They also may have experienced trauma relating to their parent’s arrest or from experiences leading up to it.”

To help social service providers better assist children of incarcerated parents, the Mansfield Urban Minority Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Outreach Program (UMADAOP) recently received an 18-month grant from the state of Ohio to implement regional programs using the acclaimed substance abuse and violence prevention curriculum developed by Creating Lasting Family Connections (CLFC). The programs will focus on families in which a parent is under-going the process of re-entering society following a period of incarceration. This process can be incredibly difficult and strenuous, resulting in turmoil and instability within the home environment.

The task of evaluating the programs went to the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, which also received grant funding. Dr. Holly Raffle, the Voinovich School associate professor who will lead the evaluation, believes the School was chosen for the project because of its strong track record with what she called “developmental evaluation” — the ability to use an evaluation to change the evaluated program or system in real time.

“The state has this really amazing idea and they want to diffuse it, and they think, ‘Who’s going to help us get there?’” Raffle said. “Well, we embrace that idea of developmental evaluation; we embrace communities, we listen to folks, and we’re okay with uncertainty. I think the state knows we’re a strong partner.”

The Voinovich School has partnered with the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation (PIRE) to evaluate the success of the CLFC curriculum. The Voinovich School will assess the implementation of the CLFC curriculum as carried out by various individual organizations, while PIRE will assess the overall success of the curriculum in affecting positive change for families.

Aimed at youth ages 9 to 17 and their families, the CLFC curriculum focuses on social skills, refusal skills, and alcohol and drug awareness that help children build defenses against the challenges they face. At the same time, parents and other caring adults receive training in family management, parenting skills and communication.

“If we do a program that the adults engage in we’re going to see better outcomes for kids,” Raffle said. “You can do a lot of work with young people, utilizing programs to strengthen their lives and to help them become more resilient—but if they’re going back to an environment that’s not nurturing them, then some of it breaks down and erodes.”

However, carrying out the evaluation will not simply be smooth sailing. Raffle identified significant obstacles standing in the School’s path. For instance, it might be difficult to encourage parents to volunteer for the program. However, she said this could be much easier if the curriculum is integrated into support systems that are already in place for those released from jail. Finding existing organizations willing to implement this program will be another obstacle, however.

“The data shows that implementing this curriculum is worthwhile, but someone at the local level has to want to implement it,” Raffle said, “So how do we embed this into a system that already exists, and how do we help a system that’s already existing to embrace a new innovation?”

Raffle said answering that question will be among the School’s first tasks.

This project is particularly meaningful for Raffle as it builds upon her previous prevention work. “A lot of our projects have focused on substance abuse among 18- to 25-year-olds, and the project we’re currently working on is with kids 12 to 25,” Raffle said. “We’re trying to figure out how we can work with communities to face the problems that they’re having, ultimately to create nurturing environments for Ohio’s children.”