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Guest Perspective: Helping Families Cope with Incarceration

Editor's Note: WSKG invited community partner and local service organization Mothers and Babies Perinatal Network to share insight on initiatives that are helping families going through incarceration.

Through the Eyes of Children Let’s imagine, for a moment, that you are 8 years old again. You are spending a regular Tuesday night with your mother and two younger siblings. The normal evening routine was underway…dinner was over, you are bathed, in your pajamas, and playing with your favorite toy while your mother puts your little brother and sister to bed. Next, you and your mother meet in your bedroom to read your favorite bedtime story. “I love you,” your mother says as she kisses your forehead. You answer back with, “I love you, too.” With a flip of the switch, the lights are out and you settle into your blankets. Suddenly, you hear a knock at the front door. You hear voices from the living room. You hear your mom crying, “No, please! What about my kids?” You are too frightened to see what is happening in the other room so you just hide under the blankets until it’s safe again…if it’s safe again. You hear your brother and sister crying from their cribs. You decide to run into their room to quiet them because you know that you are brave and a good helper, because mom always tells you that. The light turns on and an unfamiliar woman enters the room. You cling to your brother and sister and are scared. The woman says, “It will be ok. You are safe.” Mom always said that you shouldn’t talk to strangers. You see a police officer behind her and remember mom saying that police officers are safe and that it’s ok to ask them for help. You help the woman gather clothes and diapers for the babies and you pack them into a bag. The police officer carries the bag to the woman’s car and helps you, your brother, and sister get buckled into the car seats. He says that everything will be okay. Your little sister is crying. Your little brother is holding your hand so tightly that your fingers are red. You are being brave but missing your mom and you don’t know when you’ll see her again. Where did these people take her? Where is this person taking you? You ride in the car for what seems like days. You are watching out the window, desperately trying to see something that looks familiar but it’s dark and you can’t see much. As you turn onto a street, you notice a house that you think you’ve seen before. Then you see another house that looks familiar. You finally stop at a house and when the porch light turns on, you see your grandmother standing in the doorway. Finally, there was someone you knew! You rush to her, bury your head in her shoulder and cry. You are safe.In Our CommunityFrom children, to parents, to caregivers (kinship caregivers, a birth parent, or foster parent), incarceration affects the lives of many different people. In the blink of an eye, our whole lives can change. What we didn’t see in this story is the panic, fear, and uncertainty that the mother was experiencing. Incarceration can be a scary thing. It can cause high levels of anxiety in the parent who is being incarcerated. In an effort to assist women with being successful parents and be able to transition back into society after incarceration, Mothers & Babies Perinatal Network offers parenting education in the Broome County Jail. The agency holds weekly education in the forms of prenatal education and parenting education. In my experience working with women who have been incarcerated, love for their children is not the issue and these women only want what is best for their children. It is amazing to see the amount of women who come to the educational groups because they want to be the best parent for their child.Mothers & Babies recently partnered with WSKG to provide incarcerated parents and the families caring for their children with education around dealing with incarceration. We provide toolkits to families which include a Sesame Street DVD, a guide for parents and caregivers, and a children’s storybook. The toolkits, entitled “Little Children Big Challenges: Incarceration” are an excellent tool for caregivers and parents alike to talk with children about incarceration. One of the most discussed topics in our groups is how a parent can have the difficult conversation about their incarceration with their child. There is an immense

amount of guilt, failure, and embarrassment associated with incarceration and parents struggle greatly with how to talk with their children after putting them through this tough situation. Mothers & Babies Perinatal Network has used the information in the toolkit as part of the education we provide in the jail. We practice ways to start the conversation and work through barriers that might hinder a parents ability to have the conversation. Mothers & Babies Perinatal Network has also started a kinship caregiver support program which meets twice a month at the PAL Family Resource Center. In an effort to reach the caregivers, we were able to include the toolkits and a Sesame Street stuffed animal in the gifts that the Council of Churches provided to the children of incarcerated parents, as well as the information about the kinship support program.Incarceration is frightening. By providing education and support for everyone involved, we are hoping that we can help children and families cope with incarceration and make the reunification of parents and children successful. A parent in the jail, who has since been released, recently said to me, “Thank you for coming here and treating us like we’re human beings. You have no idea how much that means to all of us.”Sadie Purdy is a Community Health Worker at Mothers & Babies Perinatal Network. Sadie works with women of childbearing age to help connect them with resources in the community in an effort to promote optimal health and wellness throughout their reproductive years. For the last 8 months, Sadie has been providing weekly parenting and prenatal education to women at the Broome County Jail. Sadie brings over 15 years of experience working with at risk children and their families to her role as a Community Health Worker and has a passion for strengthening and supporting the families that she works with.

The Mothers & Babies Perinatal Network is available to provide information regarding the jail program or kinship support program.  Interested parties may call (607) 772-0517 or the toll free number (800) 231-0744. If you feel that a free Sesame Street Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration toolkit could help you or a family you work with, contact WSKG at 607.729.0100 x369.https://youtu.be/yk3SxyPW6lA