Program helps kids with parent in jail

HUDSON–“Helping children realize they are not fated” to commit crimes–even if a parent has done so–is one goal of the Greater Hudson Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents (GHICIP). So is reducing recidivism among released prisoners by “maintaining the child/parent bond,” said Joan Hunt of Greater Hudson Promise Neighborhood July 26. GHICIP is a project of GHPN, which Ms. Hunt co-directs with Kamal Johnson.

Since it started in 2015 GHICIP has taken on about 50 children, ages 2 weeks through 16 years. Ninety percent of them are from Columbia County. About half these children have a parent who is currently incarcerated; the others have one who was behind bars in the past. “Every child we’ve had we keep working with, even when parents are released or family moves,” Ms. Hunt explained.

GHICIP children come from both one-parent and two-parent households. Ms. Hunt recalled one household had both parents in jail at the same time. A child with no parent at home goes to relatives, godparents, foster homes or other caregivers. The GHICIP program is for only those children who do not have “court-mandated” requirements,” Ms. Hunt added.

GHICIP consists of four Greater Hudson Promise Neighborhood (GHPN) projects: programs (jail visits, family services, and youth activities); data collection; education and outreach (public perceptions and practical guidance); and policies.

First, Ms. Hunt said, “We want to know if somebody has told the children where their parent really is. Sometimes they tell them they’re in the army or college or away working. But sharing an age-appropriate truth is the best way to go.”

• Jail visits. Tuesdays and Fridays GHPN staff take children to visit parents in the Columbia County Jail,” Ms. Hunt said. Most children go once a week. The Jail administration has been “very supportive.” In 2016 the Columbia County Jail adopted Enhanced Child Visiting, which allows children and parents to touch and cuddle each other, while a guard and a GHPN staff person watch. A child can even do homework while sitting on a parent’s lap.

Columbia County Jail has about 70 inmates, most of whom are from Columbia County. Most are men, but there are 10 to 15 women. “A lot of our visits are with the moms,” said Ms. Hunt. “We have several cases where the father is bringing the children.”

Thirty-two children from 27 families have participated in GHICIP visits to Columbia County Jail. The other children in the program have/had a parent in a state or federal prison. Although Ms. Hunt recalled once GHPN drove a child “almost to the Canadian border” for a prison visit, usually GHPN does not go on such visits. Instead, it gives families gift and gas cards to reduce the travel cost and makes sure they have what they need for prison visits.

• Youth Activities currently consist of after-school and after-camp sessions Monday through Friday from 3 to 5:30, for ages 4 through 18. These welcome all children, but Ms. Hunt estimated 85% to 90% of the participants are in GHICIP. In addition, a Youth Advisory Board is planned to run additional activities, such as peer groups and field trips.

“We’re here to support kids to their full potential. What happens in the first five years is crucial but reparable,” said Ms. Hunt. Incentives include “positive peer connections” and “feeling one is part of the community.”

• Data Collection. Twice a year GHPN surveys prisoners in Columbia County Jail, asking them if they have a child under 18.

• Education and Outreach: Public Perceptions. “It’s a huge misconception that children of incarcerated parents are more likely to go to jail. They’re not. There are so many other factors,” said Ms. Hunt. In addition, some people maintain, “If they really loved their children, they wouldn’t have done something that caused them to go to jail.” To improve the public’s attitude, GHPN seeks to “work with media.” A two-part series it did on WGXC radio generated “a ton of interest. People called up,” she said.

One in 28 children in the USA has an incarcerated parent. Additional children have siblings and other relatives in jail.

• Practical Guidance. GHPN, in conjunction with the Department of Social Services and Berkshire Farm Center and Services for Youth, is developing materials for families and caseworkers on what they need for jail visits. It also advises educators, social workers and others who interact with families and children impacted by incarceration; The program supports other agencies and communicates with similar programs in other counties.

• Policies. “We work against policies that have a negative impact,” said Ms. Hunt. Enhanced Child Visiting is one positive result. Two additional policies GHPN hopes to establish are Safeguarding Children While Arresting Parents and Handle with Care.

Safeguarding would involve training police how to try to avoid traumatizing children when they arrest their parents. Sometimes, this means delaying raids until children are away. Albany has already adopted this policy.

Handle with Care requires informing school superintendents, principals, guidance counselors, and, if appropriate, teachers when a child has “witnessed a traumatic event.” This policy is the rule in West Virginia. “We’re looking to launch this with the Hudson City School District this year” and extend it to the rest of the county next year, Ms. Hunt said.

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