Skip to Page Level NavigationSkip to Page ContentSkip to Contact Information
Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Print this Page

Parenting and job skills most important to previously incarcerated mothers

Miami psychologist studies their needs for family success

Written by Sarah Rogers, College of Arts and Science intern 

Yvette Harris, a cognitive developmental psychologist and professor of psychology at Miami University, is leading a research study titled "Recovering From Addiction: The Parenting Challenges and Social Support of Previously Incarcerated Mothers Preparing to Re-enter into their Families and Communities." 

In 2010 she edited Children of Incarcerated Parents: Theoretical Developmental and Clinical Implications and continues to explore unanswered questions. “Realizing where I could make the greatest contribution, I narrowed my focus to maternal re-entry into the home after incarceration to analyze its effects on the children, social support and recovery from addiction,” she said. 

The study involved previously incarcerated mothers from inner city Cincinnati. Largely racial minorities, they had typically been detained on multiple occasions for drug sale and usage. Harris derived from research literature that if the mothers had more social support and fewer parenting challenges upon release, the chances of reconnection with their children would likely increase. This notion enabled her to structure her research questions through questionnaires and verbal interviews about parenting challenges, social support and related issues. 

Harris said, “The mothers had a plethora of issues, including changed relationships with their children, substance abuse, employment difficulties and minimal social support.” She found that mothers with younger children often endured communication and trust issues due to the children’s quick development. Others faced employment challenges and lacks of support from family, friends and community members.

She concluded that parenting skills and sustainable employment need the most improvement. The mothers must learn how to effectively care for their children’s health, hygiene and wellbeing. They also need sufficient job preparation and training to be made available to them upon release. Harris incorporates such lessons in her course on working with children with parents in the criminal justice system and their families.

The perspectives and needs of the children of incarcerated mothers helped Harris to understand the importance of the mothers’ ever-present parenting role, both before and after incarceration. In the summer of 2009, she organized “Camp Determination” for 40 children of incarcerated parents. Held at Bethel AME Church in Oxford, the free, weeklong day camp was made possible by a grant. 

camp counselor, child, pony

A counselor walks with a child and miniature pony at Camp Determination.

Although this project was not directly related to her current research, it did highlight the need for incarcerated mothers to prioritize a full return to parenting upon release. Vanessa Harris (not related to Yvette Harris), a psychology graduate student involved in the camp said, “Our goal was to provide the children with as normal of a summer camp experience as possible, despite having mothers in the criminal justice system.” They made tie-dye shirts, had playtime and participated in sessions focused on issues including self-esteem, nutrition and hygiene. 

The camp allowed the children to connect with peers, increase self-esteem and learn useful skills. “Kids can come from traumatic backgrounds, but that doesn’t mean they’ll become bad people,” Vanessa Harris said. It is up to the mothers to try to rekindle their relationships and ensure their children’s wellbeing as much as possible when back in the home.

This camp-based study will soon undergo a slight switch in focus from incarcerated mothers to “high-risk” mothers, including those with substance abuse, parenting and employment issues, and plans are underway for a follow-up in the summer of 2015. Vanessa Harris can also see the project gaining a three-tiered perspective. It would focus on the challenges of the mothers, temporary caregivers during incarceration, and the children, all as a unit. She said, “It’s all a story. We hope to figure out how to save these families as best as possible.”

Overall, Yvette Harris sees light at the end of the tunnel. As part of her ongoing research, she is working with students to develop special manuals, one to provide hope and guidance to incarcerated mothers as they await release, and another to help caregivers respond to the needs of the children. Both of these will serve to help her subjects reconnect with society and illuminate possible solutions for the future. “These mothers acknowledge their deficits,” she said. “Despite their shortcomings, parenting is still inherently important to them.” 

An article on her work is under review in a professional journal.

West Chester
  • Luxembourg

    John E. Dolibois European Center, Luxembourg

    One of Miami's oldest continuous study abroad programs, the Miami University John E. Dolibois Center (MUDEC) in Luxembourg offers students the opportunity to enroll in Miami classes taught by European-based and Ohio-based Miami faculty. Students enjoy a unique combination of first-class academics, engagement in the local community, and various faculty-guided and independent travel opportunities.

    Contact and emergency information for the Luxembourg Campus. Starting with general contact info on the left; additional contact and emergency information on the right.

    Château de Differdange
    1, Impasse du Château
    L-4524 Differdange
    Grand Duchy of Luxembourg

    217-222 MacMillan Hall
    531 E. Spring Street
    Oxford, Ohio 45056, USA


    Main Operator: 011-352-582222-1
    Oxford-based Coordinator: 513-529-5050
    Emergency info:

  • West Chester
    West Chester

    Voice of America Learning Center

    Located midway between Cincinnati and Dayton along I-75, the Voice of America Learning Center (VOALC) offers undergraduate and graduate courses and programs drawn from Miami's Regional and Oxford campuses. Home to Miami's MBA program, the Learning Center provides ready access to graduate programs for area educators and courses leading to the BIS degree for undergraduates.

    Contact and emergency information for the Voice of America Campus. Starting with general contact info on the left; additional contact and emergency information on the right.

    7847 VOA Park Dr.
    (Corner of VOA Park Dr. and Cox Rd.)
    West Chester, OH 45069

    Printable Floor Plan

    Main Operator: 513-895-8862
    (From Middletown) 513-217-8862
    Emergency info:

  • Middletown

    Middletown Regional Campus

    Nestled on 141 acres near I-75, Miami University Middletown offers bachelor's degrees, associate degrees, and beginning coursework for most four-year degrees. Nearby Greentree Health Science Academy immerses Miami's nursing and health information technology students in the health care experience while taking classes.

    Contact and emergency information for the Middletown Campus. Starting with general contact info on the left; additional contact and emergency information on the right.

     4200 N. University Blvd.
    Middletown, OH 45042

    Printable Campus Map

    Main Operator: 513-727-3200
    (Toll-free) 1-86-MIAMI-MID
    Office of Admission: 513-727-3216
    Campus Status Line: 513-727-3477
    Emergency info:

  • Hamilton

    Hamilton Regional Campus

    A compact, friendly, commuter campus, Miami Hamilton offers bachelor's degrees, associate degrees, and beginning coursework for most four-year degrees. Small class sizes, on-site child care, and flexible scheduling make Miami Hamilton attractive to students at all stages of life and career.

    Contact and emergency information for the Hamilton Campus. Starting with general contact info on the left; additional contact and emergency information on the right.

    1601 University Blvd.
    Hamilton, OH 45011

    Printable Campus Map

    Main Operator: 513-785-3000
    Office of Admission: 513-785-3111
    Campus Status Line: 513-785-3077
    Emergency info:

  • Oxford

    Miami University, Oxford Ohio

    Nationally recognized as one of the most outstanding undergraduate institutions, Miami University is a public university located in Oxford, Ohio. With a student body of 16,000, Miami effectively combines a wide range of strong academic programs with faculty who love to teach and the personal attention ordinarily found only at much smaller institutions.

    Contact and emergency information for the Oxford Campus. Starting with general contact info on the left; additional contact and emergency information on the right.

    501 E. High St.
    Oxford, OH 45056

    Printable Campus Map

    Main Operator: 513-529-1809
    Office of Admission: 513-529-2531
    Vine Hotline: 513-529-6400
    Emergency info: