Children of the Incarcerated: A Priority in “Hour” World

Sister Tesa FitzgeraldSister Tesa Fitzgerald is being honored as a Champion of Change for her dedication to the well-being of children of incarcerated parents.

There are some experiences that just sear into your head.  They are memories that don't change or diminish and help define the values that guide you.   The journeys I have shared with so many children of incarcerated parent are among those types of memories and they are often characterized by complicated emotions and abiding love.

Like the time when I brought a mother who had just been released from prison after 5 years for a drug trafficking charge to reunify with the son who was being cared for across the country by her mother.  Or, the time an incarcerated mother begged me to find her infant son, who was being cared for by a friend who stopped answering letters or phone calls.  Or when a mother who had been in/out of prison multiple times died suddenly, leaving her 11 year old twin sons in our care.   As witness to these most meaningful moments, I have confirmed my wholehearted belief in several enduring principals that have shaped our work and our perspective: every person has the power to change; the undeniable and lasting love between a parent and child can be transformational; and the greatest gift you can give a child is a stable family of his own. 

Our work at Hour Children started 26 years ago when we began caring for the children of women who were completing their sentences at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, NYS’ only maximum security prison for women.   As these vulnerable - often very young - mothers were released, we turned their babies over to them, but soon realized that our efforts were incomplete; these women didn’t have skills to parent these children -  indeed, almost without exception, they were barely able to take care of themselves and had limited - or no- positive parenting role models from their own childhoods.   From the needs of those first women, Hour Children was born and we have worked over the years to provide women with the skills, resources and support they have needed to become the kind of parents – and people – that their children need them to be.  The organization’s mission is to end the cycle of intergenerational incarceration and we believe that isn’t possible without fully engaging the mother in her role as a parent –the more stable and loving the environment she creates, the more likely her child is to feel hopeful about his own future and avoid the self-defeating mistakes of his mother.  And the mother benefits from accepting her parental role, as well – indeed, I can hardly count how many times I’ve heard the expressions “my kids raised me” or “my kids have taught me more than I ever taught them.”

Our work almost always starts in the prison and we are involved in some way in almost every women’s prison within NYS.  We work hard to maintain – and in some cases, to develop – the bond between a mother and her child, despite the separation imposed by prison, and to create opportunities for incarcerated parents to acquire and develop the skills they need to meet the challenges of parenting, especially given the trauma their family has likely endured up to this point.  To that end, it is essential that we address some basic, practical impediments to this effort.  For example,  DOCCS programming mandates mean that an incarcerated woman will be assigned to sweep a prison floor instead of being assigned to a parenting class.  It doesn’t matter that she has 4 children on the outside waiting for her, it doesn’t matter if she lost every child she had but the child she is now pregnant with to the “system,” it doesn’t matter that she lost her own childhood to a drug addicted mother from whom she inherited this legacy of incarceration – her “work assignment” is to sweep floors. How can that make sense, especially when we know that this essential intervention can have the potential to save this woman’s child, as well as this woman, herself?

The relationship between an incarcerated or formerly incarcerated mother and her child is complicated. There are feelings of guilt, anger, betrayal, fear, shame on both sides and those feelings require attention, time and support to resolve.  That resolution, however, needs to be allowed and even encouraged to happen, because I have seen – time and again – that the mother who hurt the child so deeply through her behavior or lack of attention is the only person who is really able to heal that child….and that is cathartic for them both.  But, given the tumult of their lives, this cannot happen without the loving and practical support of many that begins as soon as that parent first becomes involved in the criminal justice system.

All that leads me back to my earlier thoughts about memories.  As a community of citizens, what is our role in ensuring that children of the incarcerated have a collection of enduring, positive memories that they can call on when they need strength or peace?  How can we help create and nurture families that provide children impacted by incarceration with this essential resource?  At Hour Children we have some answers:  support prison visitation by providing affordable and regular transportation to/from prisons and a welcoming environment for the visit to take place; provide opportunities for parents to connect with and support their children in addition to visits, including telephone calls, letters and televisiting sessions; develop and present meaningful parenting education classes that address relevant and timely issues and allow the inmate to be available to take them; plan for the practical challenges of an offender’s release – where they will live, who they will live with, how they will obtain a job, how will they reunify with their child;  create meaningful, worthwhile and realistic training and skill development opportunities both inside the prison setting and upon release; hire an ex-offender and pay them a living wage, so that they have the means to support their children; and provide the emotional support that reintegration demands for both the parent and the child  as a mentor, a friend, a donor or an advocate for this cause.  We invite you to learn more about Hour Children and the work we are doing by visiting our website (www.hourchildren.org ).  At the very least, learning more about our families will create some of those transformative and lasting memories for YOU!

P.S. The mother and son that reunited in the airport are doing great. She works full-time and is enrolled in college. The son is an 8th grader, with good grades, lots of friends and a love of basketball!  The child we found in the heart of Brooklyn lived at Hour Children for 6 years until his mother was released from prison. He just graduated, magna cum laude, from college!  The twin boys were adopted by a nun who has been closely connected to Hour Children since its inception. They are 16 now (not driving yet, thank goodness!) and very much a part of Hour family!

Blessings!

Sister Tesa Fitzgerald is the Executive Director of Hour Children.

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