Big blue hairy empathy


Twenty-five years ago only one child out of every 125 had a parent in prison. According to a 2010 Pew Center study that number has risen to one in every 28. This equates to roughly 2.8 million U.S. children.

As the Pew study further documents, more than 1.2 million inmates — over half of the 2.3 million people behind bars — are parents of children under age 18. Within that group there are more than 120,000 mothers and more than 1.1 million fathers.

When researchers examined the racial characteristics of this incarcerated population, the statistics were especially troubling.

As the study authors conclude: “Nearly half a million black fathers … are behind bars, a number that represents 40 percent of all incarcerated parents.”

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder framed the consequences of this situation succinctly: “People sometimes make bad choices. As a result, they end up in prison or jail, but we can’t permit incarceration of a parent to punish an entire family.”

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happens.

Recognizing this problem, the Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization behind Sesame Street and other media programming for children, has found a way to help the children of incarcerated parents with a new pilot program, currently being tested in 10 states — of which Arkansas is one.

The program includes a toolkit of resources developed by experts in the correctional field, workshop staff members. “Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration,” features a DVD, a guide for parents and caregivers, and a children’s storybook. Sesame Workshop started distributing the materials — which do not air on television — in June 2013.

Materials were distributed to jails, prisons and community based organizations throughout each of the pilot states. Facilitators will also conduct training on how to best use the materials and identify people who may not be reached through the typical outlets.

The Sesame Workshop program starts by acknowledging that these children often have few ways to communicate feelings — ranging from shame and embarrassment to defiance — that may arise as a consequence of their situation.

Enter Alex. He’s the newest Muppet.

Alex has blue hair, wears a big hoodie, and has a father in jail — and he doesn’t mince words: “I don’t want people to know about my dad,” he says in a video produced by the workshop for the toolkit.

“There isn’t a lot out there to support a young child (3-8 years old) and give tools to parent and child to have a discussion around this — and for the child to have mixed emotions and still stay connected to incarcerated parents,” says Lynn Chwatsky, the vice president of Outreach Initiatives and Partners for Sesame Workshop.

Chwatsky’s observations are especially consequent given that the vast majority of inmates will eventually return home to their families — and to children who will always have to live with the aftermath and stigma of having a parent behind bars. To this point,

several studies presented at “Back To Home,” a government conference focusing on re-entry issues, show that maintaining a parental relationship is not only good for the children, but for the parents as well.

Given the number of individuals from Jefferson County who are incarcerated, it is imperative that we support programs such as this. Lest readers think this is just one more liberal tax-eating program, the folks at Sesame Workshop are quick to point out that the entire initiative has been funded through private donations. It’s too bad we can’t say the same of prisons.