Help for Kids with Incarcerated Parents

Help for Kids with Incarcerated Parents

Workshops for when a family member goes to jail

Having an incarcerated parent is more common than you think

A boy named Alex sits on the front stoop of a New York City brownstone, reluctant to explain to a group of friends why his father isn’t around. “Is he visiting someone?” one friend asks. “My dad’s in jail,” he finally admits. “I don’t like to talk about it. Most people don’t understand.”

Alex doesn’t look like most kids who have a parent in jail—after all, he’s a Muppet with an orange face, green nose, and blue spiky hair. But his story is a distressingly common one in the United States. There are 2.7 million children under age 18 in this country who have a parent in state or federal prison. That’s more than one in 20 kids. (For African American children, the figure is one in nine.)

Children with an absent parent can feel anxious and sad and sometimes angry. Many also feel guilt, as illogical as it may seem; they think if they’d been “better,” their parent would not have been taken away from them. The mother left behind suddenly has to handle more child care with less income and also must help her children manage their conflicting feelings—not to mention her own.

The burden of shame

Mothers with an incarcerated partner have a lot in common with those who are divorced or widowed. But mothers whose partners are incarcerated carry an extra burden of shame: the intense stigma of the partner’s arrest and prison sentence. (Divorced women once felt stigmatized, too, but fortunately, that has all but disappeared in most communities.) Mothers often feel they can’t ask for help, fearing people won’t sympathize with their situation; many don’t want people to know what happened. That can leave both mothers and children feeling terribly isolated.

Until recently, there were few resources to help these families sort through their feelings or offer practical advice and understanding. There are plenty of books that offer guidance to parents who are struggling to raise children after a divorce or the death of a partner, and plenty that are aimed at children that deal sensitively with those challenging circumstances. But for solo parents with incarcerated partners? Not so much.

Workshops that can help

A few years ago, the Osborne Association, a New York–based nonprofit group that works with incarcerated men and women and their families, decided to do something about that. Osborne approached Sesame Workshop—which had already developed multimedia educational materials on some of the most difficult challenges a child can face, including HIV, hunger, and warfare—and Sesame Workshop took up the challenge.

Researchers held focus groups with children and caregivers, visited prisons to talk to men and women who were parenting from prison, and consulted with experts who work with families affected by incarceration. The result is a collection of children’s stories and activities, guides for caregivers with advice on things such as helping kids adjust to new routines and how to prepare for a prison visit, and a DVD featuring Alex and other fuzzy and human characters—all aimed at helping children and their caregivers cope with a family member’s incarceration.

The stories and videos gently communicate several important messages to kids: it’s not your fault; you are loved and will be cared for; and, especially, you are not alone.

“What we’ve found is that almost every child feels alone,” says Tanya Krupat, director of Osborne’s New York Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents. “There’s so much silence and secrecy” when a family member goes to jail, “and even lies, because parents are trying to protect their kids.”

Naturally, it’s very difficult and often painful to explain a prison sentence to a child. Mothers may not know how much information to share or what language is appropriate for what age. They worry that if the news gets out, their children could be ostracized at school. And many mothers simply don’t want their children to know that their father broke the law and got locked up. So they evade, bend, or hide the truth.

Secrecy and shame

Joey Mazzarino, the Muppeteer who operates the furry, red-haired character named Murray, experienced this bewildering secrecy firsthand. When he was 12, Mazzarino’s beloved and slightly wild uncle suddenly and mysteriously disappeared. His parents made up various unconvincing stories about where he’d gone. Finally Mazzarino learned from cousins that Uncle Ronnie was in prison. His parents never let him visit, and he remembers missing his uncle and also fearing for him, since his notions of prison were drawn from hard-hitting television shows such as Scared Straight.

That kind of secrecy is still very common, and it means that families find it hard to seek help, hard to find and share with others in the same situation, or even to talk within the family about what has happened. Eventually, the truth comes out, and when that happens, the child’s sense of trust has been damaged. Experts say it’s better to tell the truth from the start.

And that’s where the Sesame Workshop videos can help. With a DVD, you can just push play and let the Muppets start the conversation.


Website—Sesame Street: Incarceration

Facebook—Sesame Street in Communities

Click here to download the free "Sesame Street: Incarceration" app to your Android Phone.

Photo credit

Tracy Tullis is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, New York, who covers criminal justice and education issues.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.

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