Helping Kids Connect When a Father Is in Prison

On Father’s Day and every day, these organizations support children left behind by incarceration.

(Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

Jun 19, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

For many families, Father’s Day is a great excuse to fire up the grill, hang out, and celebrate Dad. But for kids who have a father in prison, the day can be yet another reminder of that parent’s absence. In New York City, organizations such as Children of Promise NYC and the New York Society for Ethical Culture are working to fill the gap, on Sunday and every other day of the year.

“For children with incarcerated parents, all holidays are a loss—every one of them,” said Sharon Content, founder and president of Children of Promise. Content’s Brooklyn-based organization provides mental health services alongside after-school programs and a summer day camp for kids with parents in prison.

“While Father’s and Mother’s Day are pronounced holidays, the children miss their parents and express that loss throughout the year,” Content continued. “We give these kids a very safe and nurturing environment where they can come in and speak about it with other kids who understand.”

Founded in 2007, Children of Promise was born out of Content’s realization that there was a lack of services dedicated to kids who have lost a parent to prison. She encountered this population through a previous job with the Boys and Girls Club of America, and she found she had nowhere to refer kids with a parent in prison or their caregivers that would address their specific needs. Along with the lack of service providers, Content noticed, the stigma around crime and incarceration prevented some children from speaking up about their situation.

“For children who lose their parents to death or a military deployment, there’s a level of sympathy and understanding,” Content told TakePart. “When a child loses a parent because the parent is serving time, that level of empathy just doesn’t exist.”

While there are 2.2 million people incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails—the most and the highest rate per capita of any country in the world—there are roughly 5 million kids who have had an incarcerated parent, according to a report published in April by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. From 1980 to 2000, the number of children with a father in prison or jail rose by 500 percent, the report’s authors found. Nationally, 1.1 million incarcerated fathers and 120,000 incarcerated mothers have children under 18, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

When a parent serves time, kids are often left to deal with the emotional impact and the financial instability created by that parent’s absence. That’s a heavy burden for a child to bear. The traumatic experience of having an incarcerated parent can weigh as heavily on a kid as abuse or domestic violence, and it can lead to or aggravate mental health issues, according to the Annie E. Casey report.

Visiting a parent in prison can be a logistical challenge, making it hard for kids to stay connected. Prisons are often built in remote locations hours away from an incarcerated person’s home, adding to the time and expense of travel and limiting the number of visits that can be made. Even visiting Rikers Island, New York City’s jail in the waters between Queens and the Bronx, is a lengthy trip for some families.

To help supplement those infrequent visits to a parent behind bars, the New York Society for Ethical Culture, a religious organization that works for social justice and education, started a televisiting program in 2011 for children and their families. Using remote video visitation, children are able to “visit” with a parent from the organization’s office in Manhattan.

“Televisiting is a way to connect children and teenagers with their incarcerated dad or mom using live, secure video,” said Frank J. Corigliano, a psychologist and the director of the Supportive Televisiting Services program. “Families come from all over the five boroughs to our televisiting room, where a child is able to see and hear their incarcerated parent.”

Similar video visitation programs in place in jails and prisons throughout the country have attracted criticism for charging inmates and their families hefty prices—in some cases, as much as $20 for just 15 to 20 minutes of screen time. But Corigliano’s program, which he emphasized is intended to supplement, not replace, in-person visits, is offered at no charge to the families that participate. The equipment was donated by Cisco, and the program is staffed largely by volunteers and funded through small grants and donations. It is supervised by psychologists and social workers, adding therapeutic and service-oriented elements.

“The most important thing is keeping that connection with family and keeping it in a reasonable way—not having to make those long, stressful trips,” said Phyllis Harrison-Ross, head of the New York State Commission of Correction and chair of the New York Society for Ethical Culture’s Social Services Board, which manages the televisiting program. “That connection helps enormously with reducing recidivism and aids in the mental health of both the child and the incarcerated parent.”

While these programs can’t replace or emulate the consistent in-person presence of a parent in a child’s life, they aim to fill a gap in services that could help prevent kids with incarcerated parents from following in their parents’ footsteps. As Content notes, a child with an incarcerated parent is seven times more likely to become involved in the criminal justice system than a child without.

“That’s not because of some lack of moral conviction in that family. It’s because this is a major traumatic occurrence in their life, and there’s no place to turn, no support,” she said. “We provide these children with that support—that’s how we’re going to break the cycle of incarceration.”