The Power of One Embrace
Just a month ago I had the honor and privilege to enter a sacred space, one not defined by faith or a specific religion, but instead by the power of one moment: the embrace between a child and his father. This 13-year-old child had not seen his father, a man sentenced to prison, in 10 years. As tears rolled from their eyes, they each shed layers of fear and the family settled into a 5-hour long visit, catching up on lost time and sharing family stories. Without the volunteer program that brought them together, this father and son would have had to wait three more years to embrace.
Get On the Bus (GOTB), a program of the Center for Restorative Justice Works, reunites children throughout the state of California to visit with their mothers and fathers in prison. Founded in 2000, in response to appeals from incarcerated mothers who had not seen their children in over a decade, GOTB held its first trip—one bus carrying 17 children to Valley State Prison for Women. Thirteen years later, the annual GOTB program serves over 1,000 children with trips to 11 correctional facilities.
GOTB is more than a visitation program. It is an opportunity for families to overcome the seemingly insurmountable nature of visitation policy and the financial constraints that separate children from their incarcerated mothers and fathers. Studies have shown that visitation contributes to positive outcomes for children and reductions in recidivism for the formerly incarcerated person.
As communicated by Nichole Carlisle and others, many families do not talk about the experience of having an incarcerated parent. As a result, programs formed to specifically address the common experience of being separated from Mom or Dad play a vital role in creating a supportive community that enhances the positive structures present in the life of that young person. Programs such as Project WHAT!, a program of Community Works West, take this support structure one step further and educate teachers, social workers, and caregivers about how to provide the most skillful and thoughtful response to ensure that children are considered when decisions are made about their parent, and that children who choose to can have a lifelong relationship with their parent.
As a criminal justice practitioner with over 10 years of experience working with children of incarcerated parents, I believe we have a duty to challenge the traditional criminal justice construct and ask better of ourselves and the larger social service system to serve our most forgotten; the children left behind as their parents serve time behind bars. Events throughout the last few months have raised the profile of our children and of the leaders who ensure that their voices are not forgotten. From Sesame Street to the White House, public awareness has increased, creating new opportunities. Now is the time for a call to action. As we conduct research, provide direct service, and enact criminal justice public policy we must ask: How are the children? What can we do to hear their voices? What can we do to extend the power of one embrace?
Tara Regan Anderson has worked with families impacted by incarceration for over 10 years. She currently serves as Policy and Grants Manager at the Office of San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón. Tara previously served as the Children and Family Programs Manager for Centerforce, a NGO/CBO working with prisoners, their families, and persons recently released from jails and prisons in Northern and Central California. Tara received her BS in criminal justice and minor in international politics at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, and her MPP at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California‒Berkeley.
Casey-Acevedo, K., & Bakken, T. (2001). The effects of visitation on women in prison. International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice, 25(1); Minnesota Department of Corrections. (2011, November). The effects of prison visitation on offender recidivism.