“Not this time Daddy … you are coming home with me.” These are the words of a 5-year-old girl, spoken to her incarcerated father at the end of a special child-focused bonding visit this June. She has visited him every three months since she was 2; he is serving a life sentence. She doesn’t understand.
In the past six years, I have seen up close many encounters similar to this one, demonstrating the impact of parental incarceration on thousands of children across Miami and southern Florida. The separation has dealt severe, unseen consequences for many of these children who are often left confused and uncertain about their own future. Many children experience grief, feel shameful, and are confused. Some suffer from depression and other mental illnesses, become delinquent, and end up incarcerated themselves.
But I also have seen up close the effect of professional, coordinated, and consistent services in strengthening the bond between children and their imprisoned parents and mitigating the trauma caused by the separation. As managing director of the Service Network for Children of Inmates, I have seen many families reconnected by caring professionals. Further, I have witnessed improving social behaviors of close to 10% of Miami’s estimated 15,000 children of incarcerated parents.
As a collaborative, we are 12 community, faith, and professional organizations funded by The Children’s Trust of Miami-Dade County and private donors since 2008. We work closely and have formal memorandums of collaboration with the Florida Department of Corrections and the Miami-Dade County Corrections and Rehabilitation Department. We operate in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Leon counties but also have a connection with Abe Brown Ministries in Hillsborough County.
Our racially, ethnically, religiously diverse staffs provide wraparound care coordination services to children and families of incarcerated parents. These services include providing for basic needs, assisting with accessing medical and mental health services, and offering educational support. Our second main activity is conducting quarterly child-focused bonding visits in 10 Florida Department of Corrections facilities and coordinating video visitation with three corrections facilities to improve communication and bonding between children and their incarcerated parents. Finally, we engage in ongoing advocacy via social media, blogging, and traditional media, reaching more than 4,000 people every week to raise community knowledge of the consequences of parental incarceration on children.
To date, our network, which consists of social workers, researchers, pastors, criminal justice professionals, educators, journalists, and technology specialists, has provided services to more than 2,500 children and conducted more than 150 prison visits involving more than 500 families. Along the way, we have collected compelling data from children, caregivers, and incarcerated parents participating in our program. From this data, we have learned that we are improving bonding between the children and their incarcerated parents (more than 90% report improvements), reducing antisocial behaviors (more than 85% report improvements), and improving inmate behaviors (reductions in disciplinary reports at nine of 10 facilities for the participating inmates, saving taxpayers upwards to $81,000 in institutional housing costs over the years of our program).
Our network helps this at-risk, underserved population of children through a systematic process. It starts by receiving referrals of children needing assistance from the community, local law enforcement, and educators, as well as directly from incarcerated parents housed at Miami-Dade County and state correctional facilities. Staff proactively work to locate the children first to ensure they are safe and with a responsible adult caregiver. After that, the children are assigned to one of our six community-based coordinated care centers. These centers offer counseling, mentoring, and other supportive services to reduce the risks for antisocial behaviors and improve developmental progress. Lastly, we bus the children and their caregivers every three months to the correctional facilities for special child-focused visits to build stronger bonds between children and their incarcerated parents.
An evidence-based organization, we track our progress using research methods—constructing databases that account for each child, caregiver, and parent, and the types of services they receive.
As a result, data is demonstrating that our collaboration is having a lasting impact, not only on the children but also on the criminal justice system. Research has demonstrated that inmates with a strong family reunification plan are less likely to re-offend and return to prison, and we are starting to see these benefits as well. Our network is rebuilding family ties for prisoners and assisting them in their transition back to the community. This community includes the care coordination centers where their children have been receiving services.
Since 2008, our network has secured more than $5 million, mostly in public funds generously allocated by The Children’s Trust of Miami-Dade County. Because each agency in our collaboration is part of a larger entity, we also have been able to leverage separate funding received by individual organizations to benefit the entire network—and ultimately the children.
For example, one of our partner groups, Hope for Miami, secured a $180,000 grant to provide mentoring services for at-risk youth. Another example is Peacemakers Family Service Center at Trinity Church, Miami, which received a large AmeriCorps contract to assist children of inmates through afterschool programs and other initiatives. In addition, our partnership saves considerable money by purchasing in bulk, managing our expenses, and using creative thinking.
By providing wraparound services, quarterly bonding trips, and advocacy through the media, we are preventing or mitigating antisocial behaviors. Through our multi-disciplinary collaboration, we will continue building support in Florida and across the nation for innocent children whose lives have been upended by their parents’ incarceration.
Shellie Solomon is the managing director of Service Network for Children of Inmates. She is also the chief executive officer of Justice & Security Strategies, Inc.