A visit to the Allegheny County jail in Pittsburgh used to be riddled with stress for inmates’ loved ones and their children.

The sounds of frustrated guards and harried parents yelling at children rebounded off the walls in the lobby of the 16-floor hoosegow. The area resembled a 1940s Greyhound bus station; rows of steel chairs faced vending machines that provided a constant temptation during waits that stretched out for hours.

A result: Many parents chose not to bring their children to see their fathers, mothers, uncles, siblings and grandparents.

A visitor from the old lobby might not recognize the new one.

Since its opening in 2007, it has often been chockfull of children playing and waiting to see loved ones. Gone are the mold, chairs and the vending machines, replaced by bright blue and yellow walls, a wooden bench that marks a carpeted area for children to play and create artwork to hang on a wall. Volunteers and paid staffers help adults peruse resources about how to get a GED or sign up for parenting classes. Far from the dreaded experience that used to creep at an agonizingly slow pace for waiting is now something that many children don’t want to end.

The transformation of the lobby, which involved hundreds of individuals and organizations volunteering their time, is just one part of an unusual, if not unique, collaboration in the country to meet the needs of children with incarcerated parents.

A pair of progressive wardens, an open-minded judge, human service agencies and a dedicated local foundation have combined to create and fund a full-time position for a county advocate for children with incarcerated parents and their families, work on arrest protocols for area police officers, change the nature of contact visits in the county, and establish a safe place for children to go in the first hours after their mother or father is arrested. Underpinning these specific policies has been a commitment to rehabilitation through relationships, with the family at the center. While all involved acknowledge that much work remains to be done, significant progress has been made in creating systemic policies and paying consistent attention to the needs of children with incarcerated parents.

Susan Phillips, assistant professor at the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said that no program in the country can yet be pointed to as a “best practice.” But she praised the thoughtfulness, commitment to conversation, strategic allocation of resources and assessment of results she has seen in Allegheny County.

“Nobody has the answers –¦ [but] what they have is a process for learning. That’s what needs to be created,” said Phillips, who recently completed an evaluation of programs being developed or restructured to deal with children with incarcerated parents in 14 states.

The Pittsburgh Child Guidance Foundation has been one of the key players in creating the process Phillips describes. A comparatively small foundation–”in 2007, its total assets were about $7 million–”the organization’s mission is to improve the emotional health of children 12 and younger in Allegheny County by joining with a wide range of public and private organizations. In 2003, the foundation, headed by Claire A. Walker, launched a six-year initiative, “Advocating for Children of Prisoners.”

As part of the initiative, the foundation conducted research that consisted in part of interviews with inmates who stressed how important family visits were to them. The research also found that, on any given day, about 7,000 children in the county have a parent who has been arrested.

The numbers grabbed the attention of Ramon Rustin, who became warden of Allegheny County Jail in October 2004. Approaching the end of his third decade in corrections, the bass-voiced Rustin had locked plenty of people up–”the last jail where he had worked got a $34 million expansion approved shortly before he left–”and recognized that a different approach could yield better results.

“The numbers were pretty impressive,” he said. “Claire got me thinking about the effect on kids and inmates.

“We are trying to provide really good visits rather than enforce separation between parents and kids. We are trying to facilitate that relationship,” Rustin said.

Rustin was part of a collaborative that was started in 1997 by his predecessor Calvin Lightfoot and his counterparts at the county’s Human Services and Health departments. The collaborative attempted to provide services more seamlessly to inmates. A three-year evaluation of the collaborative published in January found that the collaborative not only save the county more than $5 million per year, but its inmates also had a 50 percent lower recidivism rate compared with another group of inmates.

The lobby became the group’s first project after learning about the data generated in the foundation’s study. Walker said that more than 100 individuals and organizations participated in the project, including students from area universities.

Jane Werner, executive director of the award-winning Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, played a major role in designing the space. She said that the project, which she did on a volunteer basis, educated her. “I had never talked to people who had been incarcerated,” she said. “I had never been to a jail or a block where there are people in orange jumpsuits everywhere. It tests your humanity.”

She added that a volunteer from the museum worked with the children to reduce the potential trauma of visiting their parents by having them do role plays in which they practiced seeing their parent behind glass. “We wanted to make the situation less scary [and] more of a known quantity,” she said.

The waiting area opened in the spring of 2007 but is far from the only aspect of the work.

Starting in 2006, the foundation funded a full-time position of an advocate for children and families of the incarcerated. Originally slated for two years, the position will be extended and paid for by the county.

Jill Brant, who has served in that position, explained that the major purposes of her job were to make policies systematic and to bring the various parties involved with the children together to improve communication.

In practice, Brant says that she has focused largely on developing arrest protocols for officers. Convened by Judge Kim Berkeley Clark, the group included members of the law enforcement, medical, legal and social service communities united by a common goal of figuring out how to have the arrest of a parent create as little trauma for his or her child as possible. The group met for two years starting in mid-2006.

Training for the protocols, which involve helping officers be sensitive to needs of children witnessing their parent being arrested, will begin in October, Brant said.

Brant explained that one of the goals of the protocols is to reduce the number of children who end up in the child welfare system. One way to reach that goal is the creation of a “Comfort Place,” an area where children who do not have place to go can stay for four hours while waiting for a caregiver to arrive.

The first few hours can be critical, according to Erin Dalton, deputy director for data analysis, research and evaluation at the county’s Department of Human Services. “A lot of the initial trauma can be the immediacy of the jail arrest,” Dalton said, adding that this was a factor in the collaborative’s decision to focus on jail, rather than prison.

Walker of the Child Guidance Foundation said the average stay in jail in recent years was 41 days. She explained that a large number of prisoners are released within 48 hours, while another group can be in jail for months.

Another project has been to change the nature of contact visits by creating visitation protocols. The majority of visits currently take place with the inmate and the loved ones separated by a thick pane of glass. Brant and Rustin both said that an area has been set up to have in person contact visits and that they want to expand that program. For her part, Clark said the protocols also will involve the collection of data to assess how the visits’ impact and distributing that information to the public.

Each of the people involved said there are plenty of areas that need improvement. Brant pointed to telephone calls, which must be made collect and also have an additional county charge that renders them unaffordable, while Rustin said he would like to have more visits and an analysis of their impact on inmates and the children. Dalton of the Department of Human Services said the county can be more effective at locating the children and assessing their needs, while Walker of the Pittsburgh Child Guidance Foundation said communication between all agencies could be better.

These challenges aside, the work has been launched and is unlikely to stop.

“They’ve got the big picture, even though they’ve not instituted all the pieces,” said Dee Ann Newell, a former Open Society Institute fellow and a national authority on children with incarcerated parents. “I do not know of anyone else at the county or local that has done what they have done.”

Ashley Walker helped research this article.

Jeff is the founder and executive director of the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ) and the Padnos/Sarosik Endowed Professor of Civil Discourse at Grand Valley State University....