A Journey for Change

Ann Adalist-EstrinAnn Adalist-Estrin is being honored as a Champion of Change for her dedication to the well-being of children of incarcerated parents.

1979 was designated the International Year of the Child by the United Nations and I was part of a local group of Early Childhood Educators in Philadelphia that chose Children with Incarcerated Parents as a focus for IYC service activities. We discovered then, that there was no agency or system in place for this population of children locally or nationally. There were few programs across the country to look to as models and scant research to guide us. Thus began my 34 year journey blending my training as a child and family therapist with my career as a trainer to focus on changing that landscape. The program that was born from those grass roots efforts in 1979 was a comprehensive visiting/parenting/family counseling program that I directed at the Bucks County Correctional Facility in Pennsylvania for 5 years. My work there led to an affiliation with the Family and Corrections Network and to connections to others who were beginning to be concerned about children and families impacted by the Criminal Justice System.

I am so very proud to be named a White House Champion of Change and to experience this honor in the company of the other amazing Champions, all of them have been a part of my journey and together we have formed a foundation of advocacy that has raised public awareness and improved services for children of the incarcerated and their families.

Many things changed in 2006, when the Federal Resource Center on Children of Prisoners, originally funded by a grant from the National Institute of Corrections and located at the Child Welfare League of America, merged with the Family and Corrections Network to create the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated. As Acting Director of the Federal Resource Center and then as Director of NRCCFI, I had the privilege of engaging with agencies and organizations in 49 of our 50 states, assisting them with the creation of programs policies and practices.

Along the way, my conversations with thousands of children, caregivers, parents and agency staff across this nation, confirmed and supported my belief that children of the incarcerated are, first and foremost just children. They go to school, get pediatric checkups and sometimes see therapists. Those that work in these systems are typically eager to learn more about the issues and hear about strategies to help them to help the children. I have been working with the Seedling Foundation and Austin Independent School District in Texas to implement policies and practices that support children of incarcerated parents and their families; through the Healthy Steps for Young Children Program at Boston University School of Medicine we train pediatricians to look at family stressors including parental incarceration and to provide resources to parents that will aid in coping and with Connecticut’s state wide CIP initiative, training for Mental Health Providers is specifically geared to addressing the trauma associated with parental incarceration.

Some children of the incarcerated are in the Child Welfare System and my most extensive project this last year has been implementing state wide training for child welfare workers in New Jersey, working with the New Jersey Child Welfare Training Partnership to create the curriculum and implement trainings. I have learned so much from the hundreds of workers from the NJ Department of Child Protection and Permanency that have attended these sessions. The intersection of Child Welfare and Corrections is complicated and challenging and their commitment and creativity continues to inspire me and to inform the development of future projects.

These are children that also have direct and indirect contact with the criminal justice system; a system that is often ill prepared for responding to the needs of children. My presentations at a series of Federal Probation Office Regional Training Conferences led to the creation of a Train the Trainer Session for the Pennsylvania Department of Probation and Parole that is used for training new officers on issues related to children of incarcerated and newly released parents.

These projects are all changing the conversations about children of the incarcerated within the systems that serve them. Recently, I developed a new course for Rutgers University in Camden New Jersey-“Topics in Criminal Justice: Children and Families of the Incarcerated.” Several students have come to me to let me know that they had incarcerated parents and thanked me for making it easier for them to let go of the secret. So much has changed and still there is much to do to create a world where children of incarcerated parents can all feel safe to talk about their parents and their feelings without fear of judgment.

Once, during a question and answer session after a presentation in the early years of my work, someone asked me “where do you want this all to lead?” And I said, “To the White House!” And they laughed. But 30 years later, it did and I am truly grateful to all who were a part of the journey that led me here.

Ann Adalist-Estrin is Director of the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated in Philadelphia.

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