Cottage Program International works with prison inmates and their families to strengthen the family unit before the inmate's release. "Families in Focus" hopes to help inmates solve some of their personal problems and give them a solid foundation for a better life when they leave incarceration.

Bernie Boswell knows about families in trouble. More than two decades ago, his own family was fighting problems with alcohol. In the early '70s, Boswell decided to share what had helped his own family through those times.The result was Cottage Program International, a private non-profit organization Boswell founded as a short informational program to prevent alcohol and drug abuse. Over the years, it expanded.

"We found very little of anything as far as research into what a good, strong family looks like," Boswell said. "There's an abundance of dysfunctional family research. But research on strong families, healthy families, was interesting and exciting. From existing studies, we created Families in Focus, seven keys to a stronger, healthier family."

The state Division of Substance Abuse contracts with Cottage Program International to provide the program to about 220 inmates a year who have demonstrated substance abuse problems. The program is also widely used worldwide outside the prison system.

"People think too narrowly," Boswell said. "There's family-esteem, not just self-esteem. And that's very significant. It's interesting that once families recognize what they can do, they make big changes. It can change their lives."

Families in Focus has identified seven areas that determine if a family will be healthy: confidence, communication, feelings, values, pride, decisions and fun.

"If families are functional in four of those areas or more, the chance of getting involved with alcohol and drugs is minimal," Boswell said. "The program isn't for severely disturbed families. It's for struggling families and families that are strong - families in general - to help them as a whole."

The first step is a family profile. Each family member 8 or older answers 35 questions about how he views his role in the family and how he sees others. Then the profile is repeated, focusing on how each member would like to see the family. After the family charts the profile it gains, there are exercises to help out in each area.

The basic family manual, a kind of self-guided tour, is available for under $100. An intensive 24-hour training workshop costs considerably more. Families in Focus participants also have access to a toll-free number that will be available 24-hours a day starting in January.

In the prison program, Cottage staff work with the inmate and his family twice a month, while also working with the family outside of the prison.

"When the inmate gets out (of prison) there's usually a structured environment to return home to. We've had great success in the past three years. And the savings are tremendous. It's one of our most exciting programs.

"The single greatest problem that needs to be worked in all families is communication. The family is not communicating. We are showing each individual that he plays a role. It can be a positive role or a destructive role," Boswell said. "If one person is dysfunctional, the whole family will be. Usually denial is key."

To learn more about the program, call 1-800-752-6100.