COIPI envisions the children of incarcerated parents reaching their highest level of development, free from the burden of parental absence.
The night my mom came home after five years in prison, I watched her from a safe and long distance, while siting close to my father. I told myself, “There is no window between us, there is no soldier watching us, there is no time limit. That’s scary.” For 1,825 nights, I was waiting for that night, the moment that I could touch my mom and tell her good night before I go to bed. But now, I felt scared. I wrote a memoir about my childhood experience, which was published in Farsi and has been translated into English. My book starts from the day of my mother’s arrest and ends with the day of her release. I titled the last chapter of the book, Stranger at Home, and I briefly expressed the internal and external challenges I faced in reuniting with my mom.
Last summer, for the second time, I attended a summer camp as a mentor and storyteller. That camp was designed by the United Methodist Church for children whose parents are in prison in Northern Virginia. It was held in the Shenandoah Valley. I was a mentor for two boys, one of them, Arthur, was 11 years old, the same age I was when my mom came home from prison. (Names have been changed to protect privacy.) Arthur and I formed a close relationship, and I make sure to stay connected with him and his grandmother, who is also his caregiver. Arthur trusted me and one day he told me that during the next year, his mother (who had been in prison for five years) would be released.
The night I heard Arthur’s story about his mother’s release, I faced a challenge–one that many of us who work for an incarcerated parent or loved one have faced, and that some of us may have the answer to: How can Arthur, or any other child, be ready for their parent’s release? How can they be prepared for reuniting with their parents, once again? I really wanted to be sure Arthur would not be scared, like I was, when his mom returned home. I did not want his mother to be a stranger to him, and I wanted his reunion with his mother to go smoother for him than mine had gone for me and many others. For me, it took 25 years to rebuild my relationship with my own mother!
I decided to search for good practices of reuniting families after former prisoners return home. In Virginia, where Arthur and I live, I know of organizations that have evidenced-based programs for caregivers and children who have loved ones in prison to ensure they are ready for the day of their loved one’s release; many of the organizations have specific steps to adhere to after release. For example, “Offender Aid and Restoration, OAR,” in Arlington, has prepared programs for ex-prisoners and individuals who are coming home from prison. Specifically, through their “Project Christmas Angel” program, it engages the community to be an active part of the lives of children and their families. In this project, they send presents to the children on behalf of their incarcerated parents. In this way, they may be able to keep or build a bond between the child and the separated parent. This organization partners with the Sheriff of Arlington and supports “face-to-face visitations” between parents in prison and their families, focusing on the children. They also run a “fatherhood program” as a peer-to-peer support program that shares their experiences and discusses the reunification of families. But all programs have their limitations. First, their projects–specialty parenting courses–start months after the initial imprisonment and are based on the prisoner’s case, not the child’s rights and his or her best interest. As most of us know, the adult newly released from prison has to deal with many challenges after release. In many cases, individuals who are released into society may have to look for their families who have relocated and have not maintained a relationship with them. Many imprisoned parents nationwide have not had visitations for assorted reasons such as financial circumstances and/or the distance between their home and the prison. Emotional and psychological barriers also push caregivers to avoid visitation in order to protect the children involved. Based on these challenges, the organizations trying to help must focus on a small population of parents and are limited in monitoring and evaluating their success.
Another good program is “Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership,” in Fredrick, Maryland. They have children’s weekend activities and cover costs of transportation for special events. They run workshops for caregivers, with parenting and co-parenting discussions, and suggestions for developing healthy relationships with the children involved. They have a different and fun program for kids who have been affected by parental incarceration. My organization, Children of Imprisoned Parents International (COIPI), partners with them and with a bible study ministry to give some of the children free haircuts for the beginning of the school year. We wanted to make sure the children who are affected have the support they deserve and are not isolated because of the difficulties in their lives due to parental incarceration. The challenges are almost the same as OAR, the organization I mentioned previously. Their inside and outside parenting program starts months after arrest and depends on prison rules and policies. They also cannot manage the systematic effects of incarceration on each family’s relationships.
Besides doing research, I have spent hundreds of hours volunteering with local organizations to learn more about the needs of the families with incarcerated parents, the current services involved, and the most vulnerable support areas. I have also created strong relationships with these organizations to build effective partnership programs. In fact, one day, the president of OAR called me and invited me to run a workshop with them for Arlington Public Schools to address parental incarceration and the role of teachers in supporting the affected children. Later, I learned it is a good practice to collaborate with school systems in the United States in addressing these familial issues. For example, the San Francisco County School System has educational and supportive programs in place to prepare the school’s teachers, counselors, social workers, and nurses for supporting children of incarcerated parents directly and individually. They look at isolation and stigma issues–the direct effects of parental incarceration–which lead to other behavioral issues or effect the child’s educational achievement. While I was at the summer camp in Virginia this year for the third time, I realized that the San Francisco County School System is one of only a few school systems that has prepared a supportive program for families who deal with parental incarceration! There is a lack of information about the populations of families with incarcerated parents, and there are no standard policies to figure out how many families in our schools are dealing with this trauma. This leads us to other challenges that create barriers in the way of returning to society and reunifying with family. In my research and experience, school systems play a key role in terms of reuniting and re-building relationships when a parent comes home from prison. Based on these findings, I used my personal experiences to begin storytelling and to advocate for children of incarcerated parents. To be sure that I could create a dialogue with our community members, I designed interactive storytelling, a combination of art and stories.
One of my on-going, interactive storytelling projects is a combination of painting and stories. On a large, white board, I draw a child on one side and an adult on the other. In between the figures are bars, which separate the child and parent. I hang six cards, including short stories of children from the moment the parent was arrested, continuing with how they lived while the parent was in prison, and ending with the moment of the parent’s release. I prepare a guide to ask the audiences who read these stories to write their feedback on another piece of paper and stick it on the board. I then present the artwork at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington. After a while, the bars are covered by sticky notes, from the show’s audiences. The participants are able to see how their feedback can fill the gap between the child and the incarcerated parent. Working with this idea, I went back to Arthur’s family. While we were working on the project, I asked his caregivers to give me feedback on the stories I had collected. I was faced with many different types of questions such as, “When is the best time to start a program which addresses the reunification for parents and families?” One of our storytelling programs comprised a group of social workers, teachers, artists, and business owners. While I asked them to write their thoughts about the stories I had told them, one of them interrupted me with anger and said: “Why? Why should I know all these sad, unpleasant and non-happy-ending stories?” Before I could answer, she added, “Why haven’t I seen these issues before?” These are the conversations we need more of, and they are why I continue my projects with different types of community dialogue. The fact is I saw my mother get arrested–and handcuffed—right in front of me and I still have nightmares about the day of her arrest. Studies show that when children witness their parents arrest, it is one of the most traumatic events in their lives! Even when the child is not present while the parent is arrested, the children may still experience separation anxiety. Putting children in these traumatic situations can leave them with anxiety that can be triggered during other events in their childhood and may remain their whole lives. There are also different stressful situations that affect children and their relationships with their incarcerated parents. For example, visiting their parents at scary prison facilities and dealing with prison guards interrupting vulnerable moments with unpleasant “times up” notices can negatively affect children and their relationship with their incarcerated parents.
Recalling my mother’s arrest, and our 200 visitation moments, as well as listening to the stories of other families with incarcerated parents like Arthur’s, tells me that reuniting should not start from the release date but many months prior. Our supportive programs cannot be dependent upon a prison’s policies or prisoner behavior. If our society wants to have a sustainable, positive, and effective programs, we need to address our policies of incarceration from the very beginning. Reviewing our policies based on a child’s best interest may lead to the reestablishment of our “community services” policies. For instance, instead of imprisoning minor offenders with families and young children, might the offender instead do community service under close observation in order to avoid the trauma of separating them from their children. Our societal structure needs to make sure our policies are linked to each other and that they have the child’s best interests on the top of their list. Our current system also needs to review plans for visitation to ensure the relationship between children and their incarcerated parents is strong and supportive when the parent is released.
If we all come together and push back the starting point of our programs, we could have programs that are seen through a positive lens by the child’s eyes and viewpoint. We need to ask policymakers tough questions in order to reform current laws and policies. But before any changes, we also need to examine these issues more closely at all levels. At COIPI, I have turned my unpleasant experiences into an honorable project that aims to advocate for these children. In our Interactive Storytelling Project, our goals are to have a conversation with our community and to measure the empathy gap between community members and families who are struggling with parental incarceration. These projects lead me to strengthen the engagement of our community members to be sure that our programs and projects are sustainable and positively effective. Filling the empathy gap is a crucial step in this process.
I would love to hear about your own positive, negative, or unsuccessful experiences. You can email me or write it on a piece of paper and give it to me after the seminar. I will use these stories and experiences in my storytelling projects to ensure every story is heard. A few questions to consider and start the process are:
- What is the best practice of reunification that you have experienced, or that your organization may have done, or that other organizations in your area have done?
- When did you experience reunification and how did it affect your clients or your own relationships with your family or theirs?
I welcome either positive or unsuccessful experience stories because I believe that when we share our stories, we also help to fill and address the gap between our communities’ members, individuals with incarceration backgrounds, and policies linked to these needs.
Thank you for your time.