Kimberly Myers: “Vermont Children of Incarcerated Parents: The Benefits of Connecting Children and Parents Through Reading”

The negative effects of having a parent incarcerated can be lessened for a child if they are able to maintain a connection with the parent. This can be extremely difficult. The costs of transportation to bring a child for a visit are often great. Scheduling can be difficult as well, it often takes a very long time to coordinate visits. Once a child is able to visit the parent the visits can be brief, sterile, and confusing for the child.  To bridge this gap, the Children’s Literacy Foundation (CLiF) has a program called Children of Prison Inmates, which provides literacy support to children and their incarcerated parents.

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(image from http://livingwithaloveoneinprison.blogspot.com/2010/04/statistical-profile-of-incarcerated.html)

Rates of Incarceration in the US and Vermont

The separation incurred from having a parent incarcerated can be psychologically and emotionally damaging for a child. According to A Report Prepared for the Annie E. Casey Foundation in 2008, “On any given day in America, it is estimated that more than 1.5 million children have a parent incarcerated in a state or federal prison. And more than 10 million children are living with a parent who has come under some form of criminal justice supervision at some point in the child’s life.” (Bouchet, 2008) There are a host of problems that these children face. Fear, anxiety, trouble in school, sadness, depression, withdrawal from peers, sleep and eating disorders are just a few of the common struggles resulting from parental incarceration. In Vermont alone “an estimated 4,500 Vermont kids are separated from a parent or guardian each year due to incarceration” (Picard, 2008, April 09)

 

What Impact Does Parental Incarceration Have on Children?

Children who live with the burden of an incarcerated parent are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol then their peers. When a forced separation occurs a child may feel shame and embarrassment in addition to a detrimental feeling of abandonment. The loss of connection that a child suffers as a result of having an incarcerated parent is tremendous. In this StoryCorps story “What was the hardest part about me being gone?” Rowena Gore-Simmons and her daughter Kenya Gore speak openly about the effect Rowena’s year-long incarceration had on them.

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(Simon, K. , n.d.)

 

CLiF Children of Inmates Program: An Important Piece of the Puzzle

The negative effects of having a parent incarcerated can be lessened for a child if they are able to maintain a connection with the parent. This can be extremely difficult. The costs of transportation to bring a child for a visit are often great. Scheduling can be difficult as well, it often takes a very long time to coordinate visits. Once a child is able to visit the parent the visits are can be brief, sterile, and confusing for the child. According to Tara Graham of the Vermont Children’s Aid Society, “Vermont is at the forefront of the movement to address the need of children with incarcerated parents.” (Picard, 2008, April 09) One Vermont organization that aims to specifically address the needs of children with incarcerated parents is the Children’s Literacy Foundation (or CLiF). CLiF has a program called Children of Prison Inmates. This program provides literacy support to children in a variety of ways. This video, prepared by CLiF, gives an in depth description of the program:

(CLiF, 2014)

An interview with Executive Director Duncan McDougall highlights a few of the ways in which CLiF works to strengthen the bonds between children and incarcerated parents.

Q. What are some of the ways your organization provides support for inmates and their children?

A. We have created a number of libraries in prison visiting rooms throughout Vermont and New Hampshire. We work within the prisons and work with prisoners to help them become more confident readers. We also donate books for the children to take home with them after visiting the prison. In some of our sites we have volunteers to record parent’s reading the books out loud, they are then sent with the book to the children. Our goal is to make reading a regular part of their lives.

Q. It is widely known that supporting literacy skills in children is important. Is it even more important for these children?

A. Breaking the cycle of illiteracy among inmates and their children serves them on many levels. Low literacy skills can be an indicator of future struggles. Both in the classroom and in the world. Giving children literacy skills is giving them another opportunity for success. Additionally the bond that inmates and children are able to develop through reading together is healthy and therapeutic. At the end of a visit the children have something to hold in their hands and take home with them, a reminder of the special moment that they shared with a parent. (D. McDougall, personal communication, April 10, 2014)

The impacts of this program are summed up beautifully by Suzanna Loring, CLiF Program Director. “Providing books, seminars, presentations, and reading encouragement can translate into fewer children and parents whose struggles with reading and writing separate them from family members and from the world around them.” (Loring, 2012)

 

A Case Study

Research suggests that “intervening in the lives of children with an incarcerated parent to preserve and strengthen positive family connections can yield constructive societal benefits in the form of reduced recidivism, less intergenerational criminal justice system involvement and the promotion of healthy child development.” (Merenstein, Tyson, Tilles, Keays, &Ruffolo, 2011) Such is the case with Amy and her seven-year-old son David. Amy is serving a sentence in a Vermont prison and has been separated from her son for over a year. She has attended CLiF seminars and participated in a program to send recordings of books to her son. Due to custody issues her son has been unable to visit her in prison. After taking the CLiF seminar Amy wanted to be able to read a story to her son on the phone every night. CLiF provided the resources to make this possible. The benefits of the program in her facility have been stronger bonds between women and their children which have been linked to “fewer behavioral problems among the women inmates, greater motivation to prepare for life on the outside and a desire to “break the cycle” of children following in their parent’s troubled footsteps” (Picard, 2008)

 

How Vermont Helps Children of Inmates

As I prepared my research on children of inmates here in Vermont it directly coincided with a very relevant legislative bill that has been in the works in Vermont for many years. On Wednesday April 23, 2014, the Senate Health and Welfare Committee voted on a new draft of H.325, a bill that calls for a study to inform future legislation. With the passage of this bill a study will be conducted to “look at what services exist for children with incarcerated parents as well as what additional services will help maintain healthy relationships between those children and parents.” In addition the study will look at “Parent-child visits, parenting classes and how to use “family-centered” strategies throughout the criminal justice system are among topics to be studied, the bill says.”(Krantz, 2014) A report on the findings of this study is due to the Vermont Legislature on January 15th. I am hopeful that the findings of this study will have far reaching positive effects on the way Vermont supports children of incarcerated parents.

 

References

Bouchet, S.M. (2008). Children and families with incarcerated parents. A Report Prepared for the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.f2f.ca.gov/res/pdf/ChildrenAndFamilies.pdf

CLiF. (2014, January 23). Children of prison inmates [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WUKiRLUDTjw

Krantz, L. (2014, April 23). Bill would study services for children of incarcerated parents. Retrieved from http://vtdigger.org/2014/04/23/bill-study-services-children-incarcerated-parents/

Loring, S. (2012). Books behind bars. Retrieved from https://www.bostonfed.org/commdev/c&b/2012/summer/books-behind-bars.pdf

Merenstein, B., Tyson, B., Tilles, B., Keays, A., & Ruffolo, L. (2011). Issues affecting the efficacy of programs for children with incarcerated parents. The Journal of Correctional Education, 62(3). Retrieved from http://web.a.ebscohost.com.hrt-proxy.libraries.vsc.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=6847087c-7305-41ce-a6bd-b4fb5b59642b%40sessionmgr4001&vid=1&hid=4109

Picard, K. (2008, April 09). Lawmakers move bill to help Vermont’s children of incarcerated parents. Seven Days. Retrieved from http://www.sevendaysvt.com/vermont/lawmakers-move-bill-to-help-vermonts-children-of-incarcerated-parents/Content?oid=2133227

Simon, K. (n.d.). “What was the hardest part about me being gone?” [Audio file]. Retrieved from http://storycorps.org/listen/kenya-gore-and-rowena-gore-simmons/#

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APA cite in text as: (Meyers, 2014)

APA cite in full References as: Meyers, K. (2014). Vermont children of incarcerated parents: The benefits of connecting children and parents through reading. Vermont Psychology. Retrieved from http://wp.me/p4elXk-iz

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Kim MeyersKim Myers: I live in Marshfield, Vermont,  with my husband, daughter, and dog in a beautiful yurt on a farm. I attend CCV in Montpelier. I am 33 years old and glad to be back in school. After many years of building hiking trails, teaching in small schools, and working on farms I am happy to be using my brain in new and different ways. I hope to become a Developmental Psychologist someday.

View Kim’s other article about Kelly Walsh and the Girls Programs of Vermont Works for Women.