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Why Parenting Matters: Evidence from Parenting Programs and At-Risk Kids

There are few more controversial or politically charged topics than parenting. Advice columns and radio/television shows abound providing tips on the best way to raise children. Parenting, especially in this day and age of social media, when every move is constantly scrutinized, has become a touchy subject.

In the arena of juvenile justice, however, parenting has long been considered an important focus of intervention. The relationship between parenting styles and behavior is one of the most researched in all of criminology and crime prevention.

Yet in recent years, the causal relationship between parenting and behavior has come into question, particularly by scholars who argue that biology plays a larger role than the environment in producing outcomes in children. For example, in her book “The Nurture Assumption,” Judith Rich Harris argues that the long-standing belief that parenting styles affect the way children turn out is wrong — genes and peers are more influential. Others have followed in Harris’ footsteps.

Specifically referring to criminal conduct, Brian Boutwell has written several pieces arguing that parenting does not have much to do with children’s behavior. He begins his quintessential essay provocatively: “I want you to consider the possibility that your parents did not shape you as a person.” He then goes on to review all the reasons why parenting may not matter and that designs that cannot account for genetics have been misleading.

Why does this matter for juvenile justice? Because if it is true that parenting does not matter, then juvenile delinquency programs and crime prevention approaches should look elsewhere. If parents do not “shape” children, then programs and interventions that seek to improve parents’ supervision or relationships with youth won’t have much impact on delinquency.

The origins of this skepticism of the effects of parents revolves around the use of research methods that can account for genetic effects. In other words, traditional social science methods that correlate parenting practices with their children’s behavior is insufficient because such results may be confounded by a third variable (e.g., genes). In other words, the long-standing findings that parenting matters may be spurious, some argue.

This work is to be commended in demonstrating the deficits of observational research and the power of biology. It is very likely true that parenting effects have been overstated. But does that mean parenting does not make a difference at all in juvenile delinquency or other outcomes?

On this score, the record is clear. Parenting does matter, and it matters a lot. Evidence — not just observational social science, but randomized, experimental studies (the only kind that can uncover unambiguous causality) show this. Further, the kind of genetic, twin studies that critics of parenting effects use to dismiss them do not actually measure parenting styles or any other kind of interaction.

Experimental studies are essential to understand for juvenile justice practitioners. When the criticism is levied that “correlation does not equal causation” in observational studies, this means that the relationship between X and Y may be actually driven by an unmeasured variable. Thus X does not in fact cause Y.

In experimental studies, groups of individuals who meet some set of inclusion criteria are randomly assigned to a treatment and control group. By virtue of this randomization, before the treatment (say, a cognitive-behavioral program), the two groups should not vary with respect to any variable, measured or unmeasured. Thus the genetic variations in group A should match the variations in group B.

Then the program is instituted, time passes, and outcomes are evaluated. Because the groups were similar pretreatment, any differences that arise after treatment can be confidently attributed to the program. This is why experiments are considered the “gold standard” in evaluation research.

So what does the experimental evidence show with respect to parenting and juvenile justice?

First, programs that focus on parenting skills early in the child’s life have shown long-lasting effects. For example, David Olds’ Nurse Family Partnership (NFP), which actually began before the children were born, helped at-risk mothers with parenting behaviors such as discipline techniques and focused on the importance of healthy development (for both themselves and their children).

The results of the first randomized study testing this program were astounding. When the children were 15 years old, they were doing better than their control group counterparts on a host of outcomes, including education and criminal behavior.

Projections of the overall impact of the NFP, which has been rolled out to other communities, indicate that by the year 2031, it will prevent 90,000 violent crimes by youth, 594,000 property and public order crimes (e.g., vandalism, loitering) by youth, 36,000 youth arrests and 41,000 person-years of youth substance abuse. These are large and meaningful effects.

The studies that show little to no parenting effects are called “behavior genetic” studies — they do not actually measure genes but are able to control for them. What about studies that measure genes directly? These are called “molecular genetic” studies.

One interesting program, the Strong African American Families program, focuses on parenting styles to reduce risk behavior of juveniles. The results have shown in a randomized experiment that it works to improve parenting and thus behavior. Genes? The researchers, led by Gene Brody, found that the program reduced the effect of a genetic polymorphism (variant) that has been linked to risk behavior. Thus parenting matters — perhaps particularly for those with genetic risk.

On the juvenile justice front, programs for at-risk and delinquency-involved youth have also shown — again, experimentally — that parenting matters. For example, Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development is an initiative that helps collate effective prevention and rehabilitation approaches for juveniles. Their highest standard of evidence requires a program to have been shown effective with a randomized trial in more than one location — such approaches are given the designation of “model program.”

One example of a model program, used in my home state of Maine, is Functional Family Therapy (FFT). FFT focuses on parenting behaviors and parent-child interactions. The results of randomized experiments of FFT, in multiple states, show it reduces juvenile delinquency. A meta-analysis (a statistical compilation of studies) indicated that the program has a moderate effect on juvenile behavior.

Overall, parenting programs have been shown to positively affect both parents and children. Often, only short-term effects have been demonstrated, which, rather than indicating parenting does not matter, suggests that programs must do more to have a lasting impact on parenting behaviors.

Thus, despite considerable confusion regarding parenting — which is the best approach, does it actually matter? — the best available evidence suggests that parents and families remain a fertile site for intervention if we wish to improve juvenile outcomes and increase public safety. Juvenile justice practitioners should continue to explore programs, both for prevention and for juvenile delinquency, that target parents and families.

Michael Rocque is an assistant professor of sociology at Bates College. His research interests include life-course criminology, race and justice, and corrections.

Teaching Moment: Police Brutality and Raising a Black Son

Zerline HughesI don’t recall ever feeling like this. Aimless. Angry. Depressed. Defeated. Tired. These feelings are synonymous with PTSD and mourning. It took me half the day Thursday to realize I am, in fact, mourning. I’m mourning the loss of 123 black men who lost their lives this year at the hands of irresponsible, improperly trained law enforcement officials.

I’m mourning for my son, who today is healthy, bright-eyed and alive, but tomorrow, on stepping out the front door of our home, could very well be the next trending hashtag, relegated to a name on a T-shirt.

My son could too easily be the 124th black male casualty of the year. Or next year, or in another 20 years. What a way to live — expecting an untimely death not because of a rare disease, not because of a dangerous lifestyle, but simply because of being a black male.

For more information, visit the JJIE Resource Hub

Despite watching Facebook Live broadcasted protests, seeing my hashtag-filled tweets and listening to my calls discussing the death of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, I feel like my son is oblivious to what is happening. And I’m not quite sure how I feel about that.

Sure, he’s a kid. Just 13. Why would I want my son to get amped up, scared, frantic? Why not keep all this bad news away from him and allow him to be oblivious? What is happening right before his eyes is the very R-rated stuff he’s not allowed to see at the movie theaters.

[RELATED: Implicit Bias: More Than Just a Few Bad Apples]

At this point, however, I think I want him to be upset and outraged because I am. Because all of us are. Because it is his life on the line today and seemingly forevermore. I want him to know that my ranting, raving and pacing around the house during his summer break is happening because I’m at wits’ end about how to respond, how to protect him, how to continue on.

Shouldn’t he see that that two people killed within two days of one another would be alive today had they not been black? Even the governor of Minnesota said Castile would have been alive today if he were white.

So I did a bad thing. I told my son that 123 black men were killed by cops in 187 days. I went on to tell him that’s almost one black man dead each day on the calendar. I then sweetened the pot and said his chances of getting killed by a peace officer is more likely than him becoming a millionaire. I kept going and going because I wanted him to react, and I was getting nothing.

What a bad, bad parent. I was forcing my trauma on to him, trying to make him feel my pain, feel defeated.

Luckily he’s used to my negativity. He’s used to me spewing off statistics like “1 in 3 black men will touch the criminal justice system in their lifetime.” He hears me day in and day out talk about the race disparity in our justice system and community services.

This is the predicament too many of us black parents are encountering right now with our young kids and teenagers. We find ourselves having to be gravely honest with them. We’re regularly explaining to them the bounty that is on their heads, the challenges that lie before them in the classrooms and on the streets.

Hours later I apologized to my son and instead of trying to force a reaction out of him, I calmly asked what he thought about the killing of two men this week and the scores of others over the last few years.

His response: “Way too many black people have been killed by police and most or none of the police were actually sent to jail. That’s unfair to other black people because that means they could be killed, too, and nothing would happen. You care because you’re an adult and pay more attention to what’s going on. Because I’m a teen, I don’t want to pay attention … but I know what’s happening.”

He also said he’s not afraid of being killed by the police. Well, that’s good … I guess. I mean, I don’t want him to walk around scared. I wish I could be as calm and cool as he is. I wish, like him, I had no fear.

But until our call to action is heard, I want him alert, expecting the unexpected — or in this case, the expected.

Zerline Hughes is a Washington, D.C., communications consultant and blogger on social justice issues. Her blog Not These Two focuses on keeping her children out of the school-to-prison pipeline. Follow her on Twitter at @zerlinehughes.

More related articles:

How to Explain and Protect Youth of Color From Police Misconduct, Trauma

Choosing the Positive Narrative for Black Children in America

Listen to Me: Change Is Always an Option

20151123_080734-1I grew up in a small town in South Carolina called Georgetown, 36 miles from Myrtle Beach. When I was 4 or 5 months old, my father passed, leaving my mother a single parent. It was me and my big brother, who is two years older.

Only 19, my mother struggled, working two jobs to support us. When I was 3 she got a job at the U.S. Postal Service that forced her to travel back and forth from Columbia, South Carolina to Georgetown. After a while, the two-hour drive made things even more complicated for us all.

My mother took my older brother with her to stay in Columbia and I was left to stay with my grandparents in Georgetown until my mother could get on her feet. When I was 13, my mother moved me to Columbia.

I was doing whatever I wanted to do, whenever I wanted to do it from 13 to 19. I committed crimes. I realized the effects of it one day when my mother had to take me to police headquarters. The look on her face showed disappointment and sadness.

At that point I realized that I never wanted to hurt my mother again, but that the bad choices I made already had.

When I was 19 and in my senior year of high school, I failed the exit exam that determined whether you passed or failed. I moved to Bradenton, Florida, where I worked for the Waste Management Company but was homeless for the first three to four months, staying at the Salvation Army shelter.

After being out of high school for years at a time I had no intentions of resuming my education. My only concern was to be wealthy. In June 2004, at 22, I attended Earle C. Clements Job Corps Academy in Morganfield, Kentucky.

At first Job Corps was hectic. I had never lived in a dorm environment and I was surrounded by strangers. We received an allowance every month but it was only $25.

I then went into the work-study program at a local lumber company in Morganfield to earn extra income. While in Job Corps, I also got my driver’s license, high school diploma and a carpenter helper certification.

I had no plans to resume my education; I still only wanted to be wealthy.

By November 2005, I had completed the carpentry program and achieved everything I wanted to accomplish at Job Corps. The only thing missing was the wealth I desired.

[Related: OP-ED: Juveniles Change; They Deserve Bolder Reforms]

During my last weeks of Job Corps I came into contact with a guy named Dr. Roth who was a millionaire. Dr. Roth helped me realize that there were opportunities to make the kind of money I desired, but that education was the key factor and much bigger than just one skill or trade.

I then fell in love with education, not for the money, but for the opportunity to learn and evolve. I realized that out of all my siblings, there weren’t any college graduates. I was the first.

In 2014, I attended Virginia College and got my state medical assistant certification. I’m now 33, a student at Virginia College finishing a program as a network technician. In another year I’ll be studying for my bachelor’s degree as a health care IT professional.

Now I yearn to not just be a graduate, but a prime example of how change can always be an option.

I’m living proof that opportunity is always presented, but what we do with that opportunity is solely up to us.

I can definitely relate to kids incarcerated with the state Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) because of my past, when carpentry and welding were the only options presented.

I visited the DJJ in Columbia in November to help introduce the kids to programs at Virginia College that could help them once they were released.

But the officers only gave the kids two to three minutes to soak in the information. I felt it was not enough time to learn about something new. Therefore, my colleagues and I took it upon ourselves to give out gift bags with brochures.

We made the kids feel welcomed and even shook the hands of 97 percent of them, encouraging them.

But staff there confiscated for their own personal use the water bottles that we had provided from the school for the kids. I was upset because the message it sends clearly isn’t positive. It leaves the feeling there is no respect and makes the kids feel their hard work is in vain.

The kids will have a higher success rate if they are more educated about different opportunities. They made mistakes, some of them very big ones that may have cost their freedom, but they are still human and this is still America.

The kids are just kids, but we as adults should always hold ourselves to a higher standard of morals and principles. This is my testimony that proves that change is always an option and can always be used for the greater good.

Quentin Grant is a student at Virginia College, now studying to be a network technician.

More related articles:

Family Portrait Project for Homeless Families Uses Art to Change Lives, Perceptions

OP-ED: Young People’s Brain Development Gives Us Window for Change

Experts: Brain Development Should Play Bigger Role in Determining Treatment of Juvenile Offenders

Telestory Unites New York Children — Briefly — with Incarcerated Parents

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NEW YORK — As the lullaby started, a little boy named Sean listened intently. His mother watched him. She had written and prerecorded the song for him from Rikers Island.

He was on a large red couch in a cluttered office, flanked by a large teddy bear in a Santa hat and Elmo. This was Sean’s Christmas present. He could also see and talk to his mother two Christmases ago, thanks to Telestory.

Telestory iJJIE New York Metro Bureau logos a free city program that connects children to their incarcerated parents through video conferencing. Families can talk to and read to one another face-to-face through a camera and a flat-screen television.

“This program is not an agency or institution. This is a warm, accepting place where children can talk with their parents,” said Dr. Frank Corigliano, a psychologist at the New York Society for Ethical Culture in Manhattan. The Society began using Telestory in 2012 to help children maintain contact with their incarcerated parent.

More than two million children have a parent who is currently incarcerated, the Society’s research found. Rikers Island houses more than 14,000 people, with a majority of those prisoners parents.

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Dr. Frank J. Corigliano

Every time Corigliano watches the video of Sean and his mother, he is reminded of the powerful connection Telestory forges for these children.

Now, this program will be offered at several Brooklyn Public Library branches.

“It’s really a lovely sight to see,” said Nick Higgins, the director of outreach services for the Brooklyn Public Libraries.

The Library runs several programs for incarcerated prisoners, such as Daddy and Me sessions, where parents are able to learn the curriculum their children are learning at school, allowing them to help with their children’s homework.

hub_arrow_2-01Higgins and Corigliano met through the Daddy and Me program, where Corigliano gave Higgins the idea to bring Telestory to the libraries.

“We wanted to help children keep in touch with their parents as well as build a better bridge for those who are incarcerated back into our community,” Higgins  said.

In 2014, with the help of Corigliano and the rest of the New York Society for Ethical Culture, as well as the city’s Department of Corrections, the Brooklyn Public Library brought Telestory to its main branch.

“Our core belief is that these televisits should not replace an actual visit with a parent, it should just help to bring them closer,” Corigliano said.

“Sometimes these visits can be difficult to schedule for the library, but it’s definitely worth it [for the children] in the end,” said Higgins.

“Oh yes my heart you hold, you’re worth more than gold.”

By the end of the lullaby, Sean was still excited and beaming.

“Pretty cool, right?” his mother asked.

Sean nodded, his gaze still locked on his mother. He left that day with a copy of his prerecorded lullaby, knowing that:

“Momma loves you, no matter what you’re going through.”

Report Looks at Mentoring Needs of Kids with Parents in Lock-Up

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A recently released report, “Mentoring Children of Incarcerated Parents,” provides recommendations for increasing the effectiveness of mentoring programs that serve children who have parents in jail or prison.

The report, authored by researchers with the American Institutes for Research, the University of Minnesota and the Institute for Health Research and Policy, and funded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), features a thorough review of the literature on mentoring for children with incarcerated parents.

A Sept. 2013 "Listening Session" hosted by the White House Office of Public Engagement and the Domestic Policy Council was also incorporated into the report. More than 40 people, including mentoring organization representatives and those designated as Champions of Change for Children of Incarcerated Parents by the White House last summer, contributed to the day-long session.

Over the last 20 years, the number of children in the nation with an incarcerated parent has steadily risen, the authors of the report say. They estimate 1.7 million kids currently have at least one parent serving a prison sentence, and “millions more” have a mother or father in jail. African-American youths are at substantially greater risk, the report states; black youths are three times more likely than Hispanic youths to have an incarcerated parent, and nearly seven times likelier to have an incarcerated parent than white youths.

Prior research suggests young people with incarcerated parents are more likely to have worse mental and physical health outcomes than their peers, as well as perform worse in school. The children of incarcerated parents, the report indicates, are also at greater risk of engaging in delinquent and antisocial behavior.

The report produced three specific policy recommendations for youths with imprisoned parents: the development of “strategic supports” to enhance mentoring programs, the cultivation of a “community of practice” for mentoring children with incarcerated parents and greater investments in research to pinpoint evidence-based models for mentoring children with moms and dads behind bars.

The findings, the authors state, show mentoring is a valuable resource for young people with incarcerated parents -- although working with the population does pose specific counseling challenges.

“Children of incarcerated parents are as likely as other youth to have the kinds of positive experiences in their relationships with mentors that contribute to positive outcomes,” the report says. “At the same time, attention to special considerations that may arise in mentoring children of incarcerated parents is warranted.”

The authors urge monitoring and support systems include personalized staff check-ins not only with mentors, but with the family of the youth as well.

The authors of the study, however, note that evidence-based research regarding best practices for the population is limited. Substantial investments, the report states, are necessary to fill in current knowledge gaps, beginning with a firmer “foundational understanding and documentation” of the overall effectiveness of mentoring as an intervention for the population.

New Study to Focus on Impact of Family Visits for Incarcerated Youth

VeraThe Vera Institute of Justice has announced that it will conduct a two-year study to examine the possible impact of increased family visits on juvenile residents in Indiana.

Recently, the Indiana Department of Correction’s Division of Youth Services (DYS) altered its policies, allowing family visitations as many as six times a week. The study, funded by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), will assess the links between increased family visits and behavioral and educational outcomes for DYS residents.

“We reached out to Indiana and asked if we could apply for this federal grant to study them, because what they’re doing is very innovative and certainly not the standard practice across the country,” Margaret diZerega, director of Vera’s Family Justice Program, told JJIE.

Two years ago, the state’s DYS was selected as a pilot site for Vera’s “family engagement standards,” which the organization developed alongside the Performance-based Standards Learning Institute. The DYS pinpointed visitation as an area the agency could improve upon, and a subsequent policy update last year resulted in the doubling of facility visitation rates.

“They made some pretty significant policy changes at the beginning of last year, so that families were able to visit almost as often as they wanted,” diZerega said. “So we’re interested in learning what the impact of that policy change is.”

Researchers will look at administrative data and conduct interviews with staffers, incarcerated youths and their families as part of the upcoming project. To measure the possible impact of visitations on recidivism, two cohorts will be studied; youth released from DYS custody between 2010 and 2012, before the visitation policies were updated, and youth released in 2013, after the policy change. Dr. Ryan Shanahan, senior program associate for the Family Justice Program, said an additional one-year-out recidivism study may be conducted once the two-year DYS study concludes.

Shanahan said she is optimistic that the study will provide greater evidence for a link between family visits and improved resident outcomes. “There’s a dearth of this kind of research in the field, and while criminal justice administrators across the country intuitively know that having more family contact can lead to better outcomes for the youth in their care, it would be great to have evidence that backs that up,” she said.

Council of Juvenile Corrections Administrators’ (CJCA) Ned Loughran said that increased family visitations can only be viewed as a positive for young people in the nation’s juvenile justice facilities.

“It has a calming influence on kids,” Loughran said. “They’re not going to act out if they know their parents are going to be there this week, and the next week and the week after.”

Isolating youths from family contacts may constitute a formula for juvenile misbehavior, he said. “I’ve been in juvenile corrections for almost 40 years and this is one of those ideas whose time has come, and it came a lot later than it should have come,” he said. “The facilities must be open to the parents; much more welcoming of them. … They must make them a part of their youth’s rehabilitation.”

Previous Vera research conducted in Ohio indicated a potential connection between expanded family visitations and educational and behavioral outcomes for its DYS residents. Through the study, diZerega believes Indiana is in a position to “set a new tone” for the nation’s juvenile justice agencies.

“We often get asked why family contact matters for youth in facilities, and I think to be able to learn through this study is one way we can answer that question,” she said. “Through what we learn from this study, we can provide some evidence to inform any kind of policy change that other jurisdictions might want to make.”

 

Parents Speak Up On Proposals To Limit Sentences For Offenders Under 18

Connecticut State Capitol, Hartford, Conn.
Connecticut State Capitol, Hartford, Conn.

From The Hartford Courant (MCT)

HARTFORD, Conn. — Marco Torres always told his son, Jonathan, ''If you do something wrong, I will turn you in.''

So when detectives knocked on the door of the family's New Britain home a few years ago looking to talk with Jonathan, then 17, the elder Torres let them in.

"I woke him up and he was a little groggy,'' Torres recalled, ''and I said to him, 'Why are they here?' He said it was because of a home invasion. Then they put the cuffs on him and took him away.''

Jonathan Torres is now Inmate 372443 at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution. He was sentenced to 25 years, to be suspended after 13.

Marco Torres was one of dozens of parents of prisoners who came to the state Capitol complex on Thursday to testify in support of a package of proposals to change sentencing policies for offenders who are under 18.

The Connecticut Sentencing Commission is weighing a number of criminal justice policy changes. One would provide a mechanism for juvenile offenders serving lengthy sentences the chance for parole.

Another would end life in prison without the possibility of release for those who commit the most serious capital crimes. A recent U.S. Supreme Court case, Miller v. Alabama, holds that life sentences for offenders under 18 are unconstitutional and requires states to provide young prisoners with "a meaningful opportunity" to seek release.

A third proposal would tweak an existing statute that adds extra penalties for those convicted of selling drugs within 1,500 feet of a school. Opponents of the current law say it hurts residents of densely populated urban neighborhoods and are pushing for a change that would limit drug-free zones to within 200 feet of the perimeter of the school grounds.

The hearing began around 11 a.m. and stretched on until well after 4 p.m.

Much of the testimony was emotional, as the parents recounted the steep toll their child's incarceration has taken.

"Do I condone what he's done? No, I don't,'' said Lori Council of Bridgeport, whose 20-year-old son is five years into a 12-year sentence for robbery. "My heart really goes out to the victims … I just think giving him a second chance will work.''

But the panel also heard from crime victims, including John Cluny, who lost his wife and 14-year-old son when a 15-year-old neighbor entered the family'sNorwich home in 1993 and shot them to death.

Cluny has trekked to the Capitol several times in recent years, but, he said, "I'm 70 years old and this is getting old to me. I'm getting worn out emotionally."

Garvin Ambrose, the state's victim advocate, said he is concerned that the legislation proposed by the commission doesn't adequately address the needs of crime victims.

"Currently I see nothing in this bill that takes the victim's opinion into consideration,'' Ambrose said. While the proposal does allow victims to make a statement to the parole board, they are not given the same advance notice that the state's attorney and public defenders offices are given.

Supporters of a change in the law note it is not a "get out of jail free" card. It allows youthful offenders the opportunity to seek release, but does not guarantee it.

A bill similar to the one discussed by the commission was raised during the legislative session earlier this year; it was approved by the state House of Representatives but failed to come up for a vote in the state Senate.

Marco Torres, the New Britain man whose son is incarcerated at MacDougall, hopes this is the year. "I do believe he needs to be punished for what he did,'' Torres said. "Ten years in prison is, I think, a good punishment, but 25 years is harsh … I see him maturing and I know he's very remorseful."

———

©2013 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)

Visit The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.) at www.courant.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

Remembering Tracy’s Story During National Youth Justice Awareness Month

How a Missouri mother turned her family’s tragedy into a national reform movement and changed her state’s juvenile justice system.

Tracy McClard, a Missouri mother who turned her family’s tragedy into a national reform movement and changed her state’s juvenile justice system.
Tracy McClard, a Missouri mother who turned her family’s tragedy into a national reform movement and changed her state’s juvenile justice system.

Jonathan’s love of learning was what Tracy McClard liked most about her son. “He was always trying to know things,” she said of her youngest child. Like his older brother and sister, he had a fondness for fantasy epics. “He read a lot,” McClard said. Series like “Harry Potter,” “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “A Wrinkle in Time” were among his favorites.

“He wanted to be a psychiatrist,“ McClard said, because he was fascinated by how the mind worked.”

By the time he turned 14, however, McClard said her son started dabbling in drugs. He got arrested for fighting in school, and he spent a weekend at the local juvenile detention center. The experience, Jonathan told his mom, “changed how his mind works.”

That May, the 41-year-old special education teacher was called up for army reserve training. The year prior, she had signed up with her daughter for part-time military service.

Jonathan McClard.
Jonathan McClard.

Preparing for his junior year in high school, Jonathan told his mom that he was ready to start scouting for scholarships. “It was time to get serious about his grades and getting into college,” she said. “That’s how I left him … looking forward to the future.”

A Fateful Afternoon

That summer, McClard left her residence in Jackson, Mo. for training in Fort Jackson, S.C. Every night, she said she called home to check up on Jonathan. One night, he told her he had broken up with Tina, a girl he had been dating for about a year.

She soon started getting phone calls from her son, who said his ex-girlfriend had told him she was being raped by Jeremy, her new boyfriend. McClard didn’t believe it, but her son was fully convinced his ex was being hurt.

On July 10, Tina allegedly called Jonathan. According to Jonathan, she had told him she was pregnant, and was being forced to abort her unborn child by her boyfriend.

“Somehow, he ended up making these arrangements with Jeremy to meet him in town,” McClard said. “And that’s when he shot him.”

Using a .22 rifle McClard bought her husband the previous Christmas, Jonathan shot Jeremy three times. Although seriously injured, the 17-year-old shot by McClard’s son survived the incident. That afternoon, McClard received a call from her daughter. “It sounded like she was trying to say ‘Jonathan shot somebody in the stomach,‘ but I couldn’t really understand what she was saying because she was crying so hard.” Immediately after the shooting, Jonathan turned himself in to police. He would later plead guilty in court.

On Nov. 13, 2007, Jonathan was given the state’s maximum sentence -- 30 years in an adult jail.

Into the System

Two hours after his arrest, he had been transported to a St. Louis psychiatric facility. There, he spent two weeks under heavy monitoring.

“I don’t know what medicines he was on at that time,” she said, “but he was on strong doses of antipsychotic, depression-type medicines that helped him sleep.”

Jonathan was soon transferred to a local juvenile detention center, where he remained until his certification hearing that September.

“While he was at that detention center, he was on so much medication,” McClard said. He began having recurring nightmares and hallucinations. He saw blood running down the walls of his cell, his mother recalled, and torrents of blood pouring out of the sky.

“We knew he was going to be certified as an adult, it wasn’t an option not to be,” McClard said. “He went from the courthouse right across the street to the adult county jail.”

There, McClard said her son’s antipsychotic treatments were suspended and he began displaying severe withdrawal symptoms. Jonathan was then sent to another county jail, about an hour away from the McClard home. He stayed there until his sentencing hearing in November.

Jonathan McClard.
Jonathan McClard.

“He got beaten up down there,” she said. “He just saw all kinds of beatings and all kinds of horrible things going on.” When he arrived, another inmate gave him a teardrop tattoo. It was the only way he’d be able to survive, he told his mother.

 

A Parent’s Worst Nightmare

A few days before Jonathan was sentenced, he was interviewed by the Department of Youth Services (DYS). There was a possibility that he could have been enrolled in Missouri’s Dual Jurisdiction Program, a blended-sentence model that would have allowed Jonathan to serve four years at a secured juvenile facility in Montgomery City, Mo. At 21, he would have received another hearing, with a judge having the option to place him on probation or to continue his sentence in the adult system.

A DYS representative was present at Jonathan’s hearing. He testified in support of allowing Jonathan to enroll in the Dual Jurisdiction Program. “The judge wouldn’t listen to anything he said,” McClard recalled.

After he was sentenced, the family waited four hours to see Jonathan again. “One of the hardest things to do when you have a child that young, in that kind of struggle, is trying to keep them hopeful, but at the same time, not lie to them about what their future holds,” McClard said. “It’s such a tightrope walk, because they are in a really bad place mentally. You don’t want to make it worse, but you can’t say, ‘yeah, I think you’re going to be able to come home.’”

Jonathan McClard.
Jonathan McClard.

Jonathan was then moved to a correctional center in Bowling Green, Mo. He resided in the facility’s juvenile wing for approximately three weeks. A DYS instructor held GED classes, and in mid-December, Jonathan passed his high school equivalency exam. The next time McClard saw her son was Dec. 30, 2007. It was two days before his 17th birthday.

“He was behind the Plexiglas, and he barely had enough room on his side to sit,” she said. “We had a really hard time hearing him and he had to shout to talk to us.”

On Jan. 4, 2008, McClard came home from a doctor’s visit. Her daughter, extremely distraught, was waiting for her. “She said, ‘mom, the prison has called … but they won’t tell me what’s wrong.’”

She called prison officials, and was transferred several more times.

“Then somebody got on and I was told, ‘sorry ma’am, your son is gone,’” McClard recalled. “He had figured out when the shift change was, and he hung himself.”

From Grief to Action

“It was intense pain, but it was relief at the same time,” McClard said. “He just had too many dreams … to be able to handle that.”

Three weeks before, her husband attempted suicide. Shortly thereafter, Charles, her surviving son, made several attempts on his own life. Her daughter, who was set to deploy in Afghanistan, was hospitalized after experiencing severe panic attacks following Jonathan’s death.

While the rest of her family was “falling apart with depression and anxiety,” McClard said she was filled with anger. “It did not have to be this way,” she said. “There was no reason that this had to happen to Jonathan.”

Her husband lost his job, and her parents came to stay with her. At school, Tina was being bullied and blamed for Jonathan’s death. Even Jeremy, the boy McClard’s son shot, was shook by his suicide. “Charles befriended him after Jon’s death,” she said, “and he can’t talk about Jonathan without crying.”

She recalled writing journal entries during Jonathan’s detention stays. “I remember in my journals, I say whatever happens, just give me the strength to do and bear what happens,” she said. “And show me what you want me to do.”

Within a month of her son’s death, she began researching juvenile justice reform groups.

[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]“She told me that she did not want Jonathan's death to be in vain, and so if she could work for reform, his death would mean something.”[/module]Jessica Sandoval, vice president of the Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ), recalled speaking with McClard for the first time in 2008. “We spoke about her son and what her family had gone through,” she said. “She certainly wanted to do a lot of advocacy in her state, and with us at the national level.”

McClard, she said, stood out from most juvenile justice professionals because of how closely the system policies had impacted her own life.

“The thing that makes her different is that she has been personally affected,” Sandoval said. “She told me that she did not want Jonathan's death to be in vain, and so if she could work for reform, his death would mean something.”

The CFYJ, Sandoval said, has been a longtime partner for McClard since she formed her own advocacy group, Families and Friends Organizing for Reform of Juvenile Justice (FORJ-MO.) “I talk with her at least once a week,” Sandoval said. “If not more.”

Raising Awareness

On and off that summer, McClard said she thought about holding a 5K run to bring attention to juvenile justice issues. “Every time I talked about Jonathan, people just didn’t get what happened,” McClard said. “People were really surprised, they were shocked, that we did this to kids.”

That October, McClard organized a race, which was designed to educate Missourians on the state’s juvenile justice policies. The 5K was such a success that she held a follow-up event in 2009. The CFYJ, inspired by McClard’s efforts in Missouri, deemed October to be National Youth Justice Awareness Month (YJAM). “Tracy had always had a dream of making what she was doing in Missouri kind of nationwide,” Sandoval said. “We took Tracy's desire to bring awareness nationwide and some of the campaign stuff we do so well together, and YJAM became its own entity."

In 2011, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) submitted a proposal to the 112th Congress, supporting the “goals and ideals” of YJAM. That year, groups in more than a dozen states and the District of Columbia held events, seeking to draw attention to the practice of placing juvenile offenders in adult facilities. A year later, National Youth Justice Awareness Month was formally recognized by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP.)

This year, McClard will be holding a “virtual run” to raise funding for her advocacy work. She’s also mapping out plans for a marathon to benefit DYS facilities in southeast Missouri at the end of December.

[module align="left" width="half" type="pull-quote"]“Tracy has also been very effective in engaging young people and families and providing their expertise and guiding improvements in the system.”[/module]More than two dozens YJAM events are scheduled across 13 states this month. “We strongly believe in family and youth engagement,“ Sandoval said. “She's really been the face of helping people to see what that means.”

Rebecca Woelfel, a Communications Director for Missouri’s Department of Social Services, also praised McClard’s statewide efforts.

“McClard and the leaders involved with her organization have been successful in engaging a broad-based coalition of individuals and organizations in working collaboratively to build on Missouri’s strengths, and recommend and implement further improvements in the juvenile justice system,” she said. “Tracy has also been very effective in engaging young people and families and providing their expertise and guiding improvements in the system.”

Passing Jonathan’s Law

Tracy McClard.
Tracy McClard.

In 2012, a bill seeking to change certification requirements for transferring juveniles to courts of general jurisdiction was introduced to the Missouri state House. The legislation was titled “Jonathan’s Law.”

The proposal, McClard said, had backing from the DYS and the Missouri Juvenile Justice Association. “We wanted to do something we were pretty certain would pass, something that would give us some clout,” she said. “So we addressed the Dual Jurisdiction Program.”

The bill sought to grant every juvenile offender in the state that was charged as an adult a DYS evaluation. “The second piece is that if the judge goes against the DYS recommendation, as he did in Jonathan’s case,” she said, “he has to write a written finding in the court document, with the court records, about why he disagrees with DYS and why they’re going to go against that recommendation.”

The proposal also sought to raise the cutoff point for when DYS could file Dual Jurisdiction Program evaluations by six months.

The legislation also had an impact on the juvenile justice system beyond the Dual Jurisdiction Program. “‘Jonathan’s Law’ changed it to where any child that’s been certified as an adult but then found not guilty will not be held under that condition,” McClard said. “So they can go back to juvenile court.”

While the bill faltered in 2012, it was resurrected in 2013. Earlier this year, the legislation passed unanimously in both houses of the state Legislature, and on June 12, Gov. Jay Nixon signed “Jonathan’s Law.”

“We worked on a strong bill, a bipartisan bill, that brought many parties to the table,” said Wayne Wallingford, a state senator representing Missouri‘s 27th District. “It was a compelling story, and I would commit myself to helping her as much as I possibly could.”

Prior to the passing of the law, he said many judges in Missouri had scant knowledge of the state’s Dual Jurisdiction Program. While the legislation doesn’t bar judges from giving adult sentences to the state’s 17-year-olds, he said that “Jonathan’s Law” now requires them to at least consider Dual Jurisdiction Placement before meting out sentences.

Placing juveniles in adult prisons and jails, he said, often leads to young people simply becoming “better” criminals. By investing in the Dual Jurisdiction program, he said the state could not only save money, but possibly prevent young people from becoming adult offenders.

“When youth go into the adult system, studies have shown the recidivism rate is a lot higher than when they don’t,” he said. “That will actually make Missouri safer, because we don’t have the young offenders re-offending.”

Passing “Jonathan’s Law” was an uplifting experience, he said, not only because it was the realization of one of McClard’s dreams, but because it could also help out many families in the future. McClard’s testimony before the state House and Senate in support of the bill, he said, definitely moved his colleagues.

“There’s been a lot of tears as she’s testified,” Wallingford said. “There’s not a person out in the audience or up in the committee that doesn’t realize that this was a situation that should have never happened.”

The Struggle Continues

Reflecting on her accomplishments as a juvenile justice reformist over the last half decade, however, McClard said she still feels deeply pained.

“I have to constantly focus on the worst part of my family’s life instead of being able to dwell on the better times and the happier times,” she said. “It’s really hard, but at the same time, I’ve met some really wonderful people and I’ve become extremely close friends through this work.”

One of those friends is Grace Bauer, a Baltimore-based advocate who, like McClard, watched her son enter the juvenile justice system and “graduate” to adult corrections. “She’s so passionate about this work,” Bauer said. “I just think Tracy immediately saw how wrong things were in the system, especially because her son could have gone into a different program.”

Hearing McClard speak, she said, is a moving experience. “From the moment she opened her mouth, you could just tell and you can see the passion as she’s speaking about these issues,” Bauer said. “She just brings it home to people in a way that is very powerful, and that legislators can actually see themselves in this woman.”

[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]“No matter what side of the issue you are on, if you do the research, you're going to find that kids don't belong in adult systems in any way, shape or form.”[/module]McClard is a major inspiration for families with children in adult systems, Bauer said. “She has this amazing amount of perseverance and determination to not stop until things change,” she continued. “All she needed was one chance to go with it, and that’s what she’s done.”

Being around a group of dedicated and passionate juvenile justice advocates, McClard said, has empowered and motivated her as an activist. She takes pride in her achievements, but she also stresses that much more work needs to be done in the field of juvenile justice reform.

“No matter what side of the issue you are on, if you do the research, you're going to find that kids don't belong in adult systems in any way, shape or form,” she concluded. “I did get Jon’s Law passed … it saved some kids, but we still have so many kids in jails and prisons right now.”

Years Later, Mother and Daughter Still Scarred By Teen Boot Camp Experiences

For a former juvenile offender diagnosed with bipolar disorder, the pains of adolescence persist into adulthood.

Tonora Mathis, on the left, with her daughter, Nicole Mathis, at Nicole's home in Geneva, Ala. As a teenager, Nicole was sent to a “boot camp” program, where she alleges physical abuse at the hands of staffers and personnel unprepared to meet her mental health needs.
Tonora Mathis, on the left, with her daughter, Nicole Mathis, at Nicole's home in Geneva, Ala. As a teenager, Nicole was sent to a “boot camp” program, where she alleges physical abuse at the hands of staffers and personnel unprepared to meet her mental health needs.

GENEVA, Ala. – Outside this bucolic, Deep South hamlet, down a grassy country road and up against a small pond, sits the gold and brown mobile home of the Mathis family.

Several deer hides are draped over the chain link fence. An old radio blares the Oak Ridge Boys’ “Elvira” at full volume. The family dog barks, the family ducks quack, while the family donkey, Frank, brays in the front yard.

“It’s my ranch, and it’s my home,” said Nicole Mathis. The 30-year-old native of Geneva -- a small town, about 50 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico and 100 miles south of Montgomery -- said she’s lived at the residence for the last three years, alongside her husband and four of her five children. Her eldest daughter lives with Nicole’s mother, 55-year-old Tonora Mathis, who said she’s lived in the town practically her entire life.

Read more from the series: Mental Health and the Juvenile Justice System: Progress, Problems and Paradoxes.
Read more from the series: Mental Health and the Juvenile Justice System: Progress, Problems and Paradoxes.

Geneva’s rustic scenery, however, belies some gritty statistics. According to 2000 Census data, nearly one-fifth of Geneva County’s population lived below the poverty line, including 27 percent of its minors.

“In Geneva, there aren’t a whole lot of rich people,” said Ed Harrison, a retired probation officer who served the community from the early 1990s until the mid 2000s. “There’s either middle class, low middle class, or they’re poor.”

Like Geneva, an undercurrent of turmoil also lurks beneath the seemingly placid lives of the Mathis family. Since the age of 8, Nicole has struggled with several diagnosed mental illnesses, which tortured both her and her mother for a majority of her childhood.

Nicole’s story is one demonstrating both how far -- and how little -- mental health treatment in the nation’s juvenile justice systems have progressed. In a state fraught with Department of Youth Services troubles, she did not receive intensive treatment or rehabilitative services when she entered Alabama’s juvenile justice system.

Instead, she was sent to a “boot camp” program, where she alleges physical abuse at the hands of staffers and personnel unprepared to meet her mental health needs.

“I Took Bruises Everyday”

Both Nicole and her mother speak in a Southern patois, a linguistic cocktail of double negatives and regional colloquialisms. Tonora, a sales associate at the local Wal-Mart, said there really isn’t much going on in the area. Outside of a few department stores and a plant that manufactures aluminum bleachers, she said employment options in the town are scant. “The only other thing around here other than that, is just you work to go home,” she said.

JJIE Resource HubNicole -- who said dropping out of high school in the 12th grade was one of the biggest mistakes of her life -- remembered being picked on in elementary school. She also recalled being filled with a tremendous rage throughout a majority of her childhood, which occasionally led her to physically attacking her classmates and teachers.

“I got in so much trouble,” she said. “I almost stabbed a little boy with a pair of scissors. I beat the living stew out of a little girl for talking bad about me. I threatened a teacher, a substitute teacher. I told her I was going to kill her.”

Tonora said her daughter was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) when she was 8 years old. “She just couldn’t pick it up, her letters, her reading, all that stuff,” Tonora said. She said her daughter was prescribed Ritalin; shortly thereafter, Tonora said, the family lost Medicaid, and Nicole was temporarily taken off the medication.

As a youngster, Nicole’s mother said her daughter was prone to violent outbursts. “It was like she was having blackout spells,” Tonora said. “She didn’t know what she was doing.” She recalled a particular outburst that was so severe that she and her husband had to drive their daughter to a local police department. She recalled locking the doors of her truck and having to physically restrain Nicole until they arrived at the station.

Frequently, Nicole would lash out at members of her own family. “I took bruises everyday,” Tonora said. “We thought she was just doing that to rebel.”

“They Kept Me In There One Time For 24 hours”

Tonora Mathis, on the left, with her daughter, Nicole Mathis, at Nicole's home in Geneva, Ala.
Tonora Mathis, on the left, with her daughter, Nicole Mathis, at Nicole's home in Geneva, Ala.

Before she was in middle school, Nicole had already been sent to a juvenile “boot camp” in Chalkville, Ala. She would end up serving multiples stints at the facility -- in addition to a brief stay in a diversion center and a group home -- throughout her early teen years.

At the boot camp, Nicole said she was subjected to abuse and mistreatment from staffers. During a physical training drill, she said staffers forced her to perform certain exercises. “They even held me on the ground and tried to make me do the push ups,” she stated. “One lady put her foot on my back to hold me down.”

Camp rules and regulations were also harsh, she recalled. Access to toilet paper and feminine hygiene products were limited, she said, and her and other residents had to take cold showers in the middle of winter.

Tonora said she could only see her daughter once a month, for two-hour visits. “It was supposed to be like a six-week program, but in her case, it would last two or three months.” Nicole said that a tiered release system, which included demerits, frequently prevented her from finishing the program on time. To “graduate” from the boot camp, Nicole said the residents had to complete a rappel tower exercise; a feat she could never accomplish due to her fear of heights.

One day, she said a staffer threw a shoe at her. “She physically took her shoe off, and threw it at me,” Nicole recalled. “So I threw it back at her.” As a result, she was placed in solitary confinement -- a punishment she referred to as “the timeout room.” When she began kicking the room’s metal door, several staffers confronted her.

[module align="right" width="half" type="aside"]

Check out our Juvenile Justice Resource Hub for even more information about mental health and substance use disorders, including:

“They stripped me from my shoes, my socks, my underwear, my bras,” she said. “And put me in handcuffs and shackles.” Her hands tied to her feet, she claims to have been locked in the room, completely naked. “They even took the rubber band that you had in your hair out,” she said.

Nicole said she was stripped and placed in confinement on multiple occasions. Once, she said staffers placed a helmet on her head, to keep her from slamming her skull against the room’s door. “They kept me in there one time for 24 hours,” she said. “You didn’t have a mattress in that room. It was nothing but a floor with tile on it.” Another time, Nicole said she was stripped and placed in isolation, so staffers could search her room for “weapons” after a plastic fork was discovered in her dorm.

“We wanted to tell our parents what was going on and how they were treating us, but we could not put that in our letters,” she said. “They read every letter that we sent out, every phone call we made, they scanned.”

“I Wanted Everything to End”

Tonora Mathis (Nicole's mother), Nicole Mathis and Nicole's Husband, Don Ray Kazee, holding Nicole and Don's children at Nicole's home in Geneva, Ala.
Tonora Mathis (Nicole's mother), Nicole Mathis and Nicole's Husband, Don Ray Kazee, holding Nicole and Don's children at Nicole's home in Geneva, Ala.

Tonora said she didn’t know about Nicole’s experiences until she came home. “When we went up there, we was in this room, and they monitored and heard everything that everybody said. If they said anything they were not supposed to, then their time would be cut, and we would have to leave.”

Tonora, at one point, considered taking legal action, but became discouraged after talking to several of her acquaintances. “They said that with it being a boot camp, that a lot of that stuff is what they done,” she stated. “So I just let it go.”

In 2001, several ex-detainees at the Chalkville campus filed a federal lawsuit, alleging physical abuse at the hands of staffers -- with some claims dating as far back as 1994. The suit resulted in the firing of several Department of Youth Services employees, and eventually, Alabama’s DYS agreeing to pay $12.5 million to four dozen plaintiffs in 2007.


[module align="center" width="full" type="aside"]For more information about reform trends in community-based alternatives visit our Juvenile Justice Resource Hub[/module]


During Nicole’s stay at boot camp, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. “They told me they did not want me to tell her,” Tonora said. As a result, Nicole didn’t learn that she was bipolar until she turned 20.

Tonora said that the staffers feared Nicole would react violently if she knew she had been diagnosed with the disorder. Earlier, when Nicole learned that her grandmother had died, staffers had to physically prevent her from running away from the facility. Fearing a similar incident, Tonora decided to not tell her daughter about the new diagnosis.

Nicole’s medication and treatments, Tonora said, did not change, even after the diagnosis. “Well, they did up her dosage,” she said. “But other than that, there was nothing that was changed.”

Finding out that Nicole was bipolar changed how Tonora thought about her daughter’s behavior. “With the bipolar thing, then it was a different story,” she said. “[Boot camp administrators] kind of backed off, and we had to learn how to just deal with it.” After Nicole’s release from the facility, Tonora said her daughter was never placed in therapy or specialized programs for bipolar disorder; instead, Nicole was placed on what her mother called “very strong medication,” including several anti-depressants.

Nicole rattles off the list of medications she was on when she was young as if she were reciting items from a grocery list; “Geodon, Trazodone, Lexapro,” she recalled. At one point, she said she was on enough medications to fill a large lunch box.

Having difficulties coping with her daughter’s experiences, Tonora said she also began taking prescription drugs. “I wound up on medicine,” she said. “I wanted everything to end.”

Do What You Can To Make It Better

After dropping out of high school, Nicole said she has been arrested several times, including once for attacking a minor. “I still think about everything I done back then,” she said, “I try to give good advice, as much as I can, to help other children.”

[module align="right" width="half" type="aside"][/module]

Now, Nicole said she’s trying her best to handle her oldest daughter. “She’s gotten to the point that sometimes she’ll listen, and sometimes she won’t,” she said. “I don’t want to see no other parent, and I don’t want to see no other child, go through what I’ve went through.”

Nicole said that no one deserves to go through the experiences she had to as an adolescent. “It’s not right for the children to put their mom and their dad through the heartache and pain,” she added. “Jail’s not a good place [and] the juvenile system is not a good place for them to be.”

Nicole reflects upon her experiences as a youth, and advises families of children with similar disorders to monitor the behaviors of their sons and daughters very closely. “I let people get under my skin,” she said, “it flared me up to the point that I would just [beat up] everybody.”

Children need a safe outlet for their hostilities and frustrations, she said. “If they want to get out there and hit a punching bag all day, let them.”

In hindsight, she blames many of the problems she encountered as a teen and young adult on the heavy doses of medication she was taking. She claims that the prescription drugs hindered -- not helped -- her, and just made her a more ferocious “troubled child.”

Tonora’s advice for mothers in similar predicaments is simple, yet heartfelt. “If you don’t go see them, it makes it a lot worse,” she said. “No matter what they do, you’ll always love them, and try to do what you can to make it better.”

 

Sesame Street Workshop Helps Kids with Incarcerated Parents

Kharon Benson reads letters from his imprisoned father. At age 10, Benson found out that his father was not in the military as his mother had told him his entire life, but in prison serving a sentence for second-degree murder.
Kharon Benson reads letters from his imprisoned father. At age 10, Benson found out that his father was not in the military as his mother had told him his entire life, but in prison serving a sentence for second-degree murder.

As he grew up, Kharon Benson became accustomed to his father’s absence. He accepted that—as he’d overheard his mother telling friends many times—his father was in the military and had been gone since he was an infant. But, when he was 10 years old, his mother handed him a letter and revealed a family secret.

Benson’s recollection of what happened when he read the letter is hazy. He doesn’t remember if his mother told him before he opened the letter, or if he read it in the letter. He doesn’t remember what he did when he finished reading it. Maybe he watched TV; maybe he played a video game. All Benson remembers is the anger and confusion he felt when he learned his dad wasn’t away defending his country; his dad was in prison.

“My dad was at Sing Sing,” he said. “At the time I was just upset and I didn’t understand.”

Benson’s situation is not unusual. According to the Pew Charitable Trust’s Economic Mobility Project, more than 3.6 percent of children in the United States — or one in every 28 — have a parent in jail or prison.

Neither his feelings nor his mother’s are unusual either: Though Benson isn’t ashamed to tell people his father is in prison, he has nevertheless inherited a legacy of concealment and silence in discussing his emotion.

In June 2013, Sesame Street’s Sesame Workshop released their latest in a series of programs on resiliency in children, with the goal of helping to address those feelings. The workshop, called “Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration,” deals with the challenges faced by children whose parents are in prison or jail, and the struggles their caregivers face.

“We’re really hoping that these really are a motivator for bringing awareness of the number of children impacted and the stigmas and helping the families and children know that they’re not alone,” said Dr. Jeanette Betancourt, senior vice president of outreach and educational practices at Sesame Workshop.

The workshop, which includes videos, a guide for caregivers and a children’s storybook, is available in both Spanish and English. In order to reach as many families as possible, Sesame Workshop has made all the materials available for free online and shared them with organizations that work in this field. Much of the information in the workshop is targeted at helping children deal with the kind of feelings Benson had. When he learned the truth about his father, Benson was confused and angry with his mother and felt betrayed by her lie, but he didn’t have the emotional tools to express his feelings.

“We never talked about it,” he said.

Though she gave him the option to write back, the few conversations they had revolved around negative stories about his father, so he chose not to. Now, at age 20, he believes his mother concealed the truth out of shame, but the two still do not discuss it.

He is nonchalant when he talks about it, his voice a shrug. He maintains that having a father in prison wasn’t life-changing. But when he was 14 and had moved out of his mother’s house and in with his grandmother and uncle, he finally visited his dad in prison. Although he learned his dad was incarcerated for second-degree murder, he felt a sense of relief.

“I felt a weight lifted off of my shoulders,” he said.

[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]“The approaches we’re taking are because we heard directly from the families or caregivers that these were the questions, these were the challenges, that they didn’t know how to answer."[/module]Betancourt and her colleagues at Sesame Workshop spent the better part of two years researching and creating the workshop, which included interviewing experts and early childhood educators and doing focus groups inside prisons. During their research, they discovered there were few resources for children with parents in prison.

“The approaches we’re taking are because we heard directly from the families or caregivers that these were the questions, these were the challenges, that they didn’t know how to answer,” Dr. Betancourt said.

Experts in the field, like Tanya Krupat, program director of the New York Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents at The Osborne Association, are excited about what the workshop has to offer. At work, Krupat sees firsthand the problems affecting children of incarcerated parents.

Although many of the feelings of separation and loss children experience are similar to those they would feel as a result of divorce or a parent’s deployment — issues Sesame Workshop has addressed in the past — with incarceration there is an extra layer of difficulty like Benson faced that includes stigma and silence about the topic. It causes children to feel isolated and unable to talk about their feelings, according to experts.

“All those other forms of separation, we circle the wagon around those kids,” Krupat said. “But not incarceration — children are often left to deal with it by themselves.”

One of the problems that stood out to Betancourt throughout her research was simply that adults were unsure of how to speak to children about their parents being in prison. The subject is complex, and the dearth of information — and that stigma — means that adults are less likely to know how to talk about it with children in a way that will help rather than hurt.

Jason O'Brien, Kharon Benson's cousin, on skateboard and Kharon Benson, on bike.
Jason O'Brien, Kharon Benson's cousin, on skateboard and Kharon Benson, on bike.

Benson can empathize with that. He remembers when his grandmother told him he’d grow up to be exactly like his imprisoned father.

“When she said that, I remember I couldn’t hold it in, and that’s when I just flipped out on her and I started yelling back,” he said. “I was just so angry.”

Carol Burton, executive director of Centerforce, a nonprofit which works with incarcerated people and their families, emphasized that having a parent in prison is not a direct indicator of whether or not a child will follow the same path.

Still, children may be living in impoverished or violent areas—the same areas their parent lived in, and may have contributed to their incarceration. In addition, the feelings of shame and isolation of having a loved one in prison can lead to acting out.

“We need to be paying attention to this growing group of kids,” Burton said.

The workshop is a community-based tool. It is something that can be implemented throughout the child’s community and in the home to provide support and protection to children who need it.

“This is a part of those stop-gap measures,” said Burton.

For Benson, he found a support system with his godmother and her children, all of whom he considers to be a second family, and who encourage him to visit his father. He has taken college classes and is currently working at a photography internship.

Not all children in his situation end up so successful, and he says it’s vital that parents and caregivers learn how to talk to children to help them through the challenges of having an incarcerated parent.

“Just know how to speak to the kid and think about their feelings, and know what and what not to say,” he said.

[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]“Everyone can relate—there’s something about having a Muppet talk to you."[/module]The workshop’s tip sheet includes suggestions to help caregivers with this sort of communication, as well as ideas for basic support such as providing a comfort item for the child to keep with him- or herself during the day and how to help the child stay connected to his or her absent parent. Krupat says that for children, it’s often these very simple things that matter most, and that having the Muppets deliver the messages to the children makes them more accessible.

“Everyone can relate—there’s something about having a Muppet talk to you,” she said. “There’s such diversity around this issue and how it affects people.”

In June, Benson saw clips from the workshop at a White House event which honored advocates in the field. He was enthusiastic about the material, because he believes it will help children who are growing up in the same situation he did.

“I grew up on Sesame Street and I never would’ve thought in a million years they’d have a piece on incarceration,” he said.