Straight from the horse’s mouth…
As a young child, I loved the phrase, “straight from the horse’s mouth”. I didn’t so much truly understand this idiom, but I did in fact, love horses and believed that anything that they could say just had to be awesome. Now that I have come of age, I also enjoy hearing things this way. There is no greater source of an individual’s own truth than hearing it straight from that person. I value the words and the suggestions that people give no matter what the topic. There is one voice that gets drowned out more than others and that is the voice of our children.
When we were younger, many of us were taught to be polite and not to speak unless spoken to. (My upbringing was a little different, more like survival of the loudest. Imagine a group of 30 Italians in a room. ;p) However, I think that this constant regression of thought has caused our children to be voiceless and opinionless, which is a shame. Children have a very valuable outlook on life and especially on policies that have a direct effect on their wellbeing. How else are we going to learn how to help our children if we don’t include them in the conversation?
I was so happy to be part of a Summit here in NYC a couple weeks ago that did just that. A few hundred nonprofit professionals, academics, local and state decision makers and children came together to talk about future policies and practices that could help children who have incarcerated parents. The morning kicked off with a panel of young people all who had a parent in prison during their upbringing. They spoke poetically about not just their struggles, but their solutions. I want to share with you what they had to say.
1. Look at the background of the person. Many people incarcerated, especially women, who are being incarcerated at the fastest rate in the U.S., have backgrounds of severe abuse (mental, sexual and physical). Although this doesn’t excuse actions, this helps gain more knowledge into why people were driven to the choices that they made.
2. Sentencing standards. Some of the current sentencing guidelines are way too strict for the crime. People are being locked up for years and years for possesion of a small amount of drugs under the Rockefeller Drug Law and drug lords are walking free.
3. Re-Entry. We should be thinking about re-entry from the moment a person comes into get sentenced. What will be their plan? How can you involve others to help support that individual while they are in prison? How can you act in the best interest of their children?
On foster care:
1. Don’t assume that adoption is the best option. Until recently mother’s could lose their parental rights if they hadn’t seen their child in a year even if they were in prison and there was no physical way anyone could bring the kids for a visit. Many parents love their children and are intergal parts of their child’s life even when they go to prison. Uprooting the child and adopting them out without doing the background work is a mistake for everyone.
2. Give the parents an opportunity. Many parents want to be involved in their child’s life, but don’t know what their rights are. They are afraid with budget cuts if they leave their job in prison for a day to go to court, they will lose it, which is the sheer reality. Many also are unaware of programs like Get On The Bus and others that bring the children to visit at no cost.
3. Check in on the kids. One boy said that he had been bounced around from foster home to foster home. He said that his social worker had assumed that the foster parents were good people when in fact, he and his sister were being abused. No one ever came to make sure they were okay. When they did see the social worker, the foster parents were always there so their was no way to explain what was happening.
1. The facility should subsize visiting. The state makes millions of dollars on their prisons each year, they should take some of that money and subsize visiting for families who really can’t afford it. The prison system is tearing families apart. It is time that they did something to keep them connected.
2. Have respect for the kids. When children are present, guards should act accordingly. A couple of the children recalled moments of their parents being reprimanded violently in front of them during a visit. This was not only scary for the children, it was traumatic. There is no reason to do this in front of the children.
3. Make the moments last. Everytime you visit someone, know that it could be your last visit. People get transferred in and out of facilities and when children visit, many have no idea when their next time will be. Many of the kids also travel for many hours to visit. Give people as much time as possible.
On parole and re-entry:
1. Look at the person’s growth. One thing is for sure, the crime will not change but often times the person does. When granting parole look at the full package.
2. Invest in child-parent programs. Children need their parents no matter where they are. Children who have incarcerated parents coming out of prison are the same as other children. There are just more needs. Their should be more live-in re-entry programs for children and their parents so that everyone can have a good transition.
3. Laws need to be revisited. One child said that even though her dad served 30 years in prison, when he got out he was not allowed to live in NY state because that is where he committed his crime. However, all of his support systems including his family lived inside of NY state. He was forced to build a new life in the south and she still struggles to see him to this day.
4. Take off the felony checkbox on job applications. People who have served their time have done just that. When they get out of prison and they are trying to get a job by being honest and saying that they have a felony, it precludes them from many jobs from sheer stigma. If they leave it blank and are caught, they are in danger of being fired so it is a lose lose situation for people who are trying to start their lives up again.
I applaud the children for speaking up for what they believe in and hope that the new incumbent will take into consideration their voices. Happy Friday everyone!