When Parents are Upstate...by Eleanor J. Bader
The handwriting is literally on the wall at Bed-Stuy’s Children of Promise, an after-school program and summer camp exclusively for the children of incarcerated parents.
“I feel angry at you for not being at home with me,” wrote one.
“I wish you would not have hit my mother,” wrote another.
A “Hope Tree” reaches from floor to ceiling and includes paper leaves that express the children’s desires: “I wish for joy…I wish my dad could spend time with me…I wish my mom gets out early…I wish I had money so I could go bowling after school.”
“These kids are a forgotten population,” says Children of Promise founder and executive director Sharon Content. “People don’t realize the collateral damage caused by incarceration.”
But they should.
A 2006 report issued by the Correctional Association of New York clearly describes the impact of having a parent behind bars: “Upheaval and loss leave children of incarcerated parents vulnerable to elevated levels of anxiety, fear, loneliness, anger, and depression. They may be stigmatized and ostracized by classmates, lose self-esteem, withdraw from relationships with adults and peers, act out in school, or become truant and experience a decline in academic performance.”
According to the U.S. Sentencing Project, more than two million men and women are in prisons and jails throughout the 50 states. Most—73 percent of women and 58 percent of men—have two or more children. In New York State alone, 105,000 kids have a parent inside.
Content, a 43-year-old former Smith Barney executive, left Wall Street several years back because she wanted to put her skills to use on issues affecting urban communities. The Queens native’s first foray into the nonprofit sector was at the Osborne Association where she worked in an alternative to incarceration program. Later, she moved to the Boys and Girls Clubs of the South Bronx and it was there that she came face-to-face with kids whose parents had been detained.
The idea for Children of Promise began taking root in 2007, Content says, but it took until March 2009 for the organization to come to fruition. A little more than two years later, Children of Promise has become a well-respected agency with a budget of more than $1 million—most of it from federal, state, and local sources—that serves approximately 200 kids a year.
“We were the first program specifically for this population,” Content boasts.
“We’re a model. We provide traditional after-school and camp services—sports, arts and crafts, drama, tutoring—but what’s unique is that our mental health and therapeutic services are not separate from these activities. They’re integrated into everything we do.”
Each week has a theme—recent topics have included anger, gratitude, guilt, respect, and shame—and participants ranging in age from six to 18 discuss that theme in individual and group therapy sessions. The topic is also raised informally, while the participants are at the art table, in theater class, or dribbling a basketball.
“These kids are walking a tightrope,” Content says. “They can fall prey to so many risk factors: getting shot, getting killed, dropping out, or getting arrested themselves.”
Indeed, the Osborne Association estimates that 70 percent of kids in juvenile detention have, or have had, an incarcerated parent. This underscores one of Children of Promise’s main goals: To break the cycle of intergenerational involvement in the criminal justice system.
The question is how to do this effectively. As the group’s Director of Mental Health Services Anna Morgan-Mullane explains, “We put the six to nine year-olds in socialization groups and work on teaching them how to interact without violence. We also focus on how to listen. With this group, when someone gets in their space, they tend to react. Annoyance quickly escalates into fighting, so we’re showing them another way of being.” Alongside a part-time psychiatrist and eight social work interns, Morgan-Mullane and her staff assess each kid and formulate a specific treatment plan for him or her. They also work with the child’s caretaker and make referrals to outside treatment facilities when more intensive intervention is warranted.
“Some of the kids have been traumatized by what they’ve seen, from one parent beating or killing the other parent, to a parent getting taken from home in handcuffs,” Morgan-Mullane continues. “We work to get them to open up about what they’ve witnessed. Most of the kids have incredible survival skills and can be brilliant, articulate, and insightful. At the same time, they can be severely disturbed.”
Needless to say, the challenge is enormous, but because Children of Promise works holistically, staffers recognize that what goes on during the school day is deeply tied to what goes on afterward. As a result, they are in regular contact with teachers and administrators in an attempt to avert a suspension or expulsion. “Sometimes teachers report that the kids have been unable to focus, or are unable to sit still,” says Morgan-Mullane. “Sometimes it’s that they’re having trouble finishing their homework, are fighting, or are not keeping up.”
In one case, Morgan-Mullane explains, a female student began acting out after a fire forced her, her siblings, and her grandmother into a shelter. In another, the child was having difficulty adjusting to his dad being back in the home after a five-year separation. Engaging both the children and their parents is key, Morgan-Mullane adds. Equally important is the provision of concrete services to enhance family stability, whether it’s a referral to a GED program, the food stamp office, or a job readiness class.
Right now, all efforts are centered on completing the academic year and finalizing plans for Children of Promise’s 10-week summer camp. Content’s excitement is obvious as she reels off a list of trips they’ve scheduled, from taking the youngest cohort to a Long Island petting zoo, to taking the older ones on an overnight camping trip to Lake Sebago in Harriman State Park.
“It’s all about the supports you have in life,” Content says. “In addition to our daily programming, we assign each child over the age of eight to a volunteer mentor, someone who makes a commitment to see them once a week for at least a year. Most of their parents are in prison eight to 10 hours from the city, so our kids rarely see their incarcerated mom or dad. Having other adults around to offer guidance and support is essential in helping these kids flourish and develop.”
While Children of Promise hopes to eventually purchase a van to facilitate more frequent prison visits, for the short-term the group is focused on hiring enough counselors to ensure a successful summer program.
Still, Content and her 30-person staff can’t help but dream. A letter from an incarcerated dad, she says, set her wheels in motion. “Imagine if we started something called Parents of Promise,” she muses. “It could give incarcerated adults a way to be more involved with us and with their kids.”
Content looks off as she speaks, as if she’s making an organizational flow chart in her head, and it is clear that she’s thinking big. “I’d like there to be a Children of Promise in every community with high incarceration rates,” she says. “Parents constantly tell us how appreciative they are that we respect the parent-child relationship despite the fact that an adult is in jail.”
Once again, the walls tell the story:
“I am a concerned citizen, parent, and black man who has made a mistake but wants to contribute to the enhancement of our children,” J.D. wrote from the Fishkill Correctional Facility.
“I love my daughter and would definitely like to know what’s going on in her life,” T.H. wrote from a prison in Coxsackie, New York. “I truly miss her and would appreciate any type of help you are offering.”
Content’s efforts to provide that help have garnered attention for both her and Children of Promise. In 2010 she won a Do Gooder Award from the Brooklyn Community Foundation as well as a commendation from Borough President Marty Markowitz. Although Content admits that it’s nice to be recognized, she insists that she didn’t create Children of Promise to win accolades. “I just wanted to create a safe space for children to deal with the shame, stigma, and secret of having an incarcerated parent,” she says.
Children of Promise is located at 600 Lafayette Avenue, 6th floor, Brooklyn, NY 11216; 718.483.90290; www.cpnyc.org.
ContributorEleanor J. Bader