An International Experience from Iran
My name is Hamed Farmand, a children’s rights activist and the founder of Children of Imprisoned Parents International (COIPI). COIPI is a US-based nonprofit organization founded in 2014 with a vision of a world where children do not carry the traumatic burden of parental incarceration into their adulthood. Our mission is to promote, deliver, and sustain evidenced-based prevention and support programs around the world for children who have experienced psychological or physical trauma from growing up in a home with incarcerated parents. Our programs nurture and support children of imprisoned parents, while educating and providing resources for their parents and members of the judicial and social services community.
My motivation for advocating for the rights and needs of children of incarcerated parents came from personal experience. My mom was a member of a political group that was active during and after the 1979 revolution in Iran. She was arrested in 1982, when I was 6, and kept in prison for 5 years.
The entire process was terribly painful. But my motivation was larger than just that. I grew up in silence, not because my mother was a political prisoner, but because there was absolutely no information about how families can buffer the effect of having a parent in prison to help a child deal with the trauma. Unfortunately, four decades later, when I am almost 46, there is still a lack of information in Farsi about the effect of parental incarceration on children and the ways in which affected families can deal with it. That is why one of our organization’s goals is to publish Farsi materials for parents and caregivers of children who experience parental incarceration, in addition to running programs in the state of Virginia, US.
In 2016, after two years of research, monitoring other organizations, and having conversations with experts, we created and published our “public education messages” in Farsi, which included tips for caregivers of children with incarcerated parents, so they can more effectively deal with the trauma. These messages explain almost all situations these children face: the arrest, first and other visitations, special dates such as birthdays and new year, and release. They also consider the differences of the effects of mother and father imprisonment as well as different effects of these experiences based on child age and gender.
These messages were prepared based on theory-based empirical research. They were mostly taken from scientific literature published in US academia, the educational materials created by other related organizations in the US and Europe, expert opinions of the researchers of family relations and child development, and my own experiences as an Iranian who had to deal with the same type of trauma during my childhood.
We launched those messages on social media and Facebook at that time. Since then, we shared and reshared those messages to reach more audiences while we were far from the target group. Direct contact is blocked because of the security and immunity due to the dictatorship regime in Iran. In 2018, we connected with an expert in social media and campaigning who benefits from our messages and agreed to work with his daughter. He and his wife had been arrested because of their beliefs, being Baha’i, and their daughter, same as my age at the time of my mother’s arrest, stayed with her grandparent. Based on our conversations, we improved how we would present our messages and launch them on different platforms and in different ways, such as video recording. In 2020, he encouraged us to launch a live program on Instagram, more prevalent in Iran. And on June 30, 2020, we started a year-long awareness campaign to support families with incarcerated parents in Iran.
Opportunity: Online platform and COVID pandemic:
The first step of this campaign was to reach our target group. We followed our target audiences on social media and Instagram. These social media platforms have been our most powerful tool to reach out to those families and send our messages. Using these connections, we were able to share posts, including images of books, movies, or other sources that caregivers could use. We also shared stories, share other pages and ideas, and developed a following.
Instagram also allowed us to have live streaming, which was the central part of the campaign. We had a professional who voluntarily designed posters for our campaign and helped us to stream the program on different platforms such as Facebook and YouTube at the same time. Some videos, which were saved on an Instagram page, were viewed about 1000 times.
Ironically, given the online nature of our program, our program reach benefited from the pandemic because more people were staying at home and were looking for online materials to watch or listen to. My full-time job, which was virtual, provided me with additional time to dedicate to the program in the middle of my workday. I ad flexibility to deliver the lectures and messages when the time was appropriate in Iran (evenings), and my audience could watch the program.
Challenge 1: Culture
Interventions should be culturally tailored. Being sensitive to the culture and habits of our audience was a challenge. Even though the messages we sent out were evidence-based, and our research team was made up of professional Iranians, familiar with our audience culture, we still struggled with finding the best way to communicate our message. We learned from our previous programs, the conference we attended, or our peer support-group program. We learned to be good listeners and find the best solutions from our conversations with our audiences. We used this skill as a tool in our campaign on Instagram. For example, Iranian families with incarceration backgrounds are not the only people hiding the truth from their children and may lie about their situation. We emphasized that how we deal with that should be culturally adaptive.
Solution: Power of Storytelling
We used the power of storytelling to show our audiences how a child gets hurt by finding truth from others, instead of their caregivers, who they were trusting. At the same time, we had to show caregivers that we do not blame them, and we understand they want to protect their child and do not want to harm them on purpose. In this way, they have engaged with the topic and asked us to expand it.
As another example, using religious belief is a complicated way of trauma treatment. Our organization is nor religious-based and I am not a religious person, but we understand the power of belief in handling a traumatic situation. Concerning our audience’s belief, we reminded them about children’s feelings to ensure we do not put all responsibilities on the shoulder of religion. I told them my own story of my grandmother telling me, “Pray for your mom’s release, you are pure, and your prayers would be accepted.” I explained to them that at the age of 8 or 9 years old, I could not understand why my “prayers” were ineffective. This caused some worries and concerns. I lost my trust in myself, and my self-esteem declined because I thought something was wrong with me if my prayers were not effective.
To ensure we did not send a wrong message, I gave them another example from my experience as a mentor in a camp designed by a church in Virginia for children with incarcerated parents. One night I told a story of praying with an 8-year-old boy who could not sleep. He became calm and slept peacefully while I was telling him the story.
Challenge 2: Children’s Rights
Children’s rights and the convention on the rights of the child were the primary foundation for the campaign.
The meaning of “children” is the first article in the convention. In our campaign, we had to be sure that all our audiences know that children include every person below the age of 18, and that teenagers, regardless of their knowledge and experience, are still children. We often heard from the mother and father of teenagers that they look at them as little adults, not as children.
Challenge 3: Learning from the target group
Instagram gives us a chance to have one-on-one conversations. We learned a lot from our discussions, from their questions, and sharing experiences or ideas. Sometimes I shared what they have done as a good practice. Sometimes they shared a title of books, game, or actions they have found useful. For example, one parent was preparing to go back to prison and serve her time there. As part of her preparation, she wrote some letters for her son to be read in the future. We discussed the content of those letters, which could be used as helpful tips for a child to follow to express their feelings and manage feeling arousal.
Challenge 4: Resilience
When we started the campaign, we knew, in theory, about the resilience of the children who face trauma. The campaign gave us a chance to put it into practice. We were connected once to a mother who was separated for months from her little boy and tried to rebuild their relationship. At that time, she was afraid of retraumatizing her boy by telling him she may be separated again to serve her two years in prison. She used our recommendation to find a way to communicate with him and prepare him. She told us her son likes to find some good characters in cartoons or books to follow and learn how to deal with anxiety, sadness, and loneliness.
Another mother told us when she started a conversation with her son about being absent for a while, her son told her he knew she would be leaving him soon. It opened a highway for them to communicate about the elephant in the room, a tragic event that both were aware of but hiding their feelings about it from each other.
Challenge 5: No Stigmatization
We know that most of the prisoner population in Iran wound up in prison not for political or religious-related accusations and is a large part of our campaign’s audience. Since we started our organization, we knew that getting access to this population, most of whom are in prison for drug-related or other general accusations, is hard, if not impossible. However, when we heard about a prison guard in a women’s ward in Iran who printed and attached our messages to the prison board, benefitting the mothers in that prison, we were encouraged to keep doing our job. We also tried to ensure our messages are helpful for all audiences and give all families an idea of dealing with their children while one or both of their parents are in prison or jail, regardless of the accusations against them. This structure, and building a foundation free from stigmatization and stereotype, allows us to build trust and create a comfortable place for everyone to share their stories. As an example, during our campaign, a lady texted me to share her experience of being isolated and ignored by her community members and being bullied at school because of why her father was in prison.
Challenge 6: Voice of Experts
Finally, we used a multi-disciplinary way to send our messages. We consulted and had interviews with stakeholders and experts such as lawyers, human rights activists, psychologists, social workers, and journalists. This was in addition to sharing our knowledge and past experiences in hour-long speeches. These have made the educational campaign more powerful and valuable. Now, there are more than 30 videos that every family in the same situation can benefit from. We shared some of these videos for a mother of a girl whose father is in prison, a father after his release, and for other parents who talked about their feelings and struggles on social media. The program is a successful example that international organizations can make a difference in the well-being of disadvantaged families including those who face parental incarceration.