Problem: Visiting a parent in jail can be frightening to a child, adding stress to the whole family.
Solution: Create a more welcoming environment for the child and visiting family members.
Would a visit to see a parent in jail be easier for a child if Elmo from Sesame Street was there too? Jail authorities in Washington County, Minn., are counting on those kinds of friendly faces to help ease the jolt of seeing a parent behind bars.
When a person is incarcerated, they’re not the only ones who suffer the consequences. More than 2.7 million children in the country — one in 28 —have an incarcerated parent. About half of those are under age 10, according to a study by Pew Charitable Trusts.
Visiting a parent in jail, with its steel, bars and bullet-proof glass, can be an intimidating experience for a young child. To create a less stressful environment for kids and their parents, officials with the Washington County, Minn. jail decided to take part in a study several years ago to find out what impact seeing parents behind bars had on children.
The program got its start when the county was approached by Rebecca Shlafer, an assistant professor in the division of general pediatrics and adolescent health at the University of Minnesota, and Laurel Davis, a post-doctoral fellow in family science at the university; they had received a grant to study how visiting parents in jail affects young children.
After Shlafer and Davis gained permission from the county to visit its jail for their study, they found visiting family volunteers to participate.
“This was a no brainer,” said Washington County Jail Commander Roger Heinen, who has worked for the county for more than 25 years.
“We kind of felt like in the end, there would be a benefit,” he said. “It’s kind of one of those win-win situations.”
The researchers later reported their findings to the county; their study found that children with incarcerated parents can experience depression, anxiety, withdrawal, aggression, substance abuse, delinquency, poor grades, truancy and school failure.
Since then, the jail has created the Washington County Jail Children of Incarcerated Inmates Project.
The jail program makes use of a Sesame Street resiliency initiative called “Little Children: Big Challenges: Incarceration.” Resources from the program include a Sesame Street DVD, a guide for parents and caregivers, a children’s storybook, an online toolkit and a Sesame Street incarceration app.
Sesame Street provided large stickers of familiar faces like Sesame Street characters Elmo, the Cookie Monster, and Bert and Ernie for the waiting room at the jail, where kids hang out with other parents and caregivers before seeing their incarcerated parents.
In addition to the characters, the jail also hung photos of smiling children on the walls. There are also plenty of children’s books to read while they’re waiting, along with colorful child-size benches to sit on.
The jail also encourages inmates to read to their children, even if it is on a phone looking through glass, Heinen said.
In all, the jail spent under $2,000 to get its program up and running, Heinen said. Today, they get new books and toys from donation drives held throughout various county departments; they also receive books donated from the library.
Another innovation that has worked out especially well, Heinen said is special visiting times for kids, where children get first priority on Saturday mornings and Saturday nights, so fidgety kids don’t get overly antsy in the waiting room.
Another tip from Heinen: The jail recommends that the parent or caregiver accompanying the child visit the incarcerated parent alone first before bringing the child. This gives the adult time to figure out how the visit works and makes it a smoother time for everyone when they return with the child. To help further prepare visiting families, the jail created a special page on its website for anyone planning a visit to the jail with a child.
The jail also holds resource fairs for families, with information about everything from the WIC Nutrition Program to immunizations; the fairs are held quarterly during visiting hours. “Transportation [to visit county offices to find out more about the programs] can be difficult,” Heinen said. “We felt like this was a good way to get this information to them.”
Heinen said he continues to have more goals for the program, including adding volunteers to the visiting area, to help families who visit, for face-to-face contact, and adding a large TV monitor to have a “one-stop shop” for visiting information, instead of having a lot of different signs all over the lobby.
For those who say that the jail’s softer approach is “coddling” inmates, Heinen points out that “97 percent of these folks will get back in the community. The kids didn’t do anything wrong. Why should they suffer? We look at it as a win-win.”
There’s been little pushback to the program, he said. “I think what’s helped is the support from Sheriff Dan Starry on down. And also from County Administrator Molly O’Rourke and Commissioner Carla Bingham.”
“We’ve very open with our staff,” he said.
“It might be a little extra work. But the smiles and warm letters are worth it. They’re all in. Who doesn’t want to do something for the kids?”
Find more information from Sesame Street here: https://www.sesamestreet.org/toolkits/incarceration