PUNTA GORDA – On Monday, a group will start traveling across the state, organizing Christmas parties that bring parents and their children together.
“Monday begins our holiday visits,” said Shellie Solomon. “We have some wonderful donors out there who give us some special toys, Christmas-y toys, and we’ll take those toys and have stockings for the families. It will be a nice holiday for the children.”
But amidst all that holiday cheer, she said, is the sad reality of their very difficult mission. The children, she noted, mostly live with grandparents and other relatives. And the parents that they’re visiting next week are living in a difficult place: a Florida prison.
Even though the parents are inmates, Solomon said, “We believe that most of them should be parents, so we try to enable them to be parents if they need to be. We obviously help their caregivers who are left behind, but we also expect the parents who are incarcerated to participate – and to be parents, and to develop a relationship with their child.”
Solomon is the project director for the Service Network for Children of Inmates, a collection of agencies, businesses, law firms and social service providers who work to reconnect children with an incarcerated adult.
On Monday, the network will visit Charlotte Correctional Institution Visiting Park in Punta Gorda, the first of 10 Florida prisons they plan to stop at through next Thursday. It starts at 9 a.m. at Charlotte CI, an adult male facility that houses 1,305 inmates.
For the past four years, the Florida Department of Corrections has partnered with the Service Network for Children of Inmates in an effort to strengthen the bonds between inmates and their children, and Charlotte CI was happy to welcome them in, said Kathy Connor, spokeswoman for the Punta Gorda prison.
“It’s been going on since 2007,” she said
Solomon said their mission is to help the parents who are behind bars to reconnect with their children, and to help the kids get through what can be an agonizing and traumatic time in their life.
“Our main purpose is to help them grow up and be successful,” she said. “Children with incarcerated parents are twice as likely to have a mental illness and three times as likely to show anti-social behavior.”
That’s why the network aims to bring parent and child together, even if it is in a very painful setting, a correctional institute.
“A good percentage of our children have not seen their parent in three or more years,” Solomon said. “We do a lot of introductions – ‘This is your father, this is your mother.’ ”
While the parents who are behind bars are often exhilarated to see their child, “children experience it differently,” Solomon said. “If they actually saw the arrest, that sticks with them as a nightmare. Even if they were small, most of the kids can tell you exactly what happened, and it’s a very traumatic period for them. Then the children whose parents are incarcerated for a long time, they suffer from a lot of emotional turmoil. They ask, ‘If my father loves me, why won’t he come home?’ So we try to get them to bond together.”
Sometimes it works so well that when visitation time is over, it can be emotionally agonizing for the child to have to leave behind their parent at the prison, Solomon said.
“Leaving is traumatic,” she said. “We don’t want to re-traumatize them. Being on a regular prison visit is tough. They can’t be alone with their parent, there are more people there, and it’s chaotic, and you don’t have toys to play with.”
Funded mainly by private donors, the Service Network for Children of Inmates is dedicated to understanding the circumstances and needs of families with an incarcerated parent. Through their joint efforts, they attempt to improve the quality of life for children of incarcerated parents and their families.
“It is a network of 10 different organizations who are a member of it, most of whom are in Miami/Dade County,” she said. “We are a collaboration, not a company. We just have these professional and community agencies that have come together to help children who have a parent who is incarcerated. We’ve been together for five years and get together once a month. We provide wrap around care service. We get a referral for the child of an incarcerated inmate asking for help, and for the child, they need to navigate the different government systems that are out there. It’s a full service, one-stop shop approach with a number of social worker folks who work with the client.”
Their other focus, she said, is what she called “bonding service” – or helping the parent and child to bond together, despite the prison that separates them.
“Every quarter we take the children and their caregivers who want to go visit their incarcerated parents,” she said. “It’s a bonding visit. We will bring in toys to do play therapy and have activities — kind of like civic activities — to try to teach the kids about their community.”
Many of the children, she noted, live with other relatives, and long for the ability to reunite with their parents.
“We found we have far more children than the national average living with grandparents or great-grandparents, or are living with their aunts and uncles,” she said. “When you look at the population of children of inmates, there are not a lot of children who are in foster care.”
While the program is very popular with, and strongly appreciated by the inmates, Solomon said, it’s also being welcomed in by more and more Florida prisons.
“The wardens are asking, ‘Do you have this program?,’ and we actually have a waiting list of wardens who want us to come to their facilities,” she said. “It’s very popular with the inmates because they have time with their kids and otherwise wouldn’t see them at all.”
But because Florida now houses 102,000 inmates in 63 state prisons — the third largest prison system in the nation – Solomon said they simply don’t have the manpower to expand this program to every correctional facility. The closest prison to Orlando that they visit now is Lowell Correctional Institute in Ocala.
“We visit 10 facilities now, and they’re pretty spread out,” she said. “It is a challenge. When we go to Lowell, we have to have a sleepover, and then drive the six hours back to Miami.”
To learn more, log on to Children of Inmates.
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