In a country that jails more people per capita than anywhere else in the world, the kids of incarcerated parents are a large yet powerless and marginalized group of people.
There are 2.7 million kids in America with an incarcerated parent, a scenario that has become so common that “Sesame Street” created a character named “Alex” whose dad is in jail. Many of these kids come from poor families and have endured abuse on top of the trauma of having a parent taken away in such a stigmatised fashion.
“You’re dealing with poor African-Americans and Latinos, and their parents committed an infraction against society,” Sharon Content, founder of the nonprofit Children of Promise, told me. “They really carry the burden of their parents’ crime.”
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, I visited the Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn headquarters of Children of Promise, a multi-faceted operation that gives kids one-on-one counseling with professionals, homework help, mentoring, a meal, and even individual music lessons.
Children of Promise is the only organisation of its kind in New York City, according to Content. Content says the 5-year-old organisation’s goal is to make sure these kids don’t “have any interaction with the criminal justice system.”
Of course, she’s referring to the organisation’s goal of making sure these kids never get locked up themselves. As children with parents (or, in some cases, siblings) in jail, most of these kids have had plenty of experience with the criminal justice system. Kids often have to take long bus rides to visit their incarcerated parents, sometimes getting patted down and only getting to talk to their parents through plexiglass, one therapist at Children of Promise told me. A lot of them deal with intense anger and sadness.
When I visited Children of Promise’s Bed-Stuy headquarters, one 11-year-old participant told me the hardest part about having his dad in jail was “trying not to cry.”
Therapy can help them manage these strong feelings, as can building a relationship with the incarcerated parent through letter-writing and visits. These relationships can be fraught because, as Content says, “It’s hard to love somebody that everybody says is bad.”
One of those kids, a boy who’s now 10, gradually got closer to his father after he got life in prison when he was just 5 years old. Initially, that boy, whom we’ll call Joe to protect his privacy, was angry at his father and acted out by throwing “dangerous tantrums” that got him suspended from school, according to Children of Promise.
Joe enrolled at Children of Promise’s after-school program right after it launched five years ago, and he started getting one-on-one counseling and tutoring. The little boy even did spoken-word poetry to address his fear that one day he’d get “locked up” like his dad.
He eventually started writing his dad, sending him gifts, and visiting him in prison. Joe, who will never get to see his dad on a daily basis, sleeps with his father’s t-shirt every night. When I saw him at Children of Promise recently, I asked him to describe the after-school program there. Struggling to find the right words, he finally said, “It’s like home.”
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