DadTalk Blog: Improving the Future for Children of Incarcerated Parents

Improving the Future for Children of Incarcerated Parents

Ed. Note: This post originially appeared on the ACF Family Room Blog. Read the original post here.


The stories are heartbreaking. Parents hauled off to jail in front of their children who were left traumatized. Sons and daughters left wondering if their mothers and fathers still loved them. Spouses making their children lie about their mommy or daddy in prison to avoid stigma. Youth left to fend for themselves because there was no other family member to call.

These testimonials and experiences were shared June 12 at the White House Champions of Change Ceremony, which recognized community leaders across the nation who work to lessen the trauma children endure when parents are incarcerated and help parents stay connected to their children.

These honorees work hard to ensure that innocent children (almost 2 million of whom have an incarcerated parent) do not suffer as a consequence of adult decisions.

The ceremony also served as a kickoff for a new education and awareness campaign to help children and families caught in these situations. Education tools were developed to teach better coping skills and increase access to helpful resources. Both a federal response and a brand new storyline in Sesame Workshop are being launched this week.

Federal Response

Last year, the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services, Justice, Housing and Urban Development, Education, Agriculture, the Social Security Administration and other federal agencies joined forces and created the Children of Incarcerated Parents Working Group. Through this intergovernmental workgroup lead by the Domestic Policy Council, the White House has worked with partners across the federal government to identify opportunities to support these children and their caregivers. The group developed a toolkit for child welfare agencies, federal prisons and residential reentry centers to address issues faced by incarcerated parents.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who opened the Champions of Change ceremony and introduced the 12 honorees, strongly encouraged interdepartmental collaboration within her own agency to address the needs and circumstances of children who are so often adversely affected by their parents’ incarceration.

Photo, Arienne and AbbyThe Administration for Children and Families worked alongside the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation to identify our best HHS resources to provide the working group.

In less than a year, the workgroup identified existing systems that reach children of incarcerated parents and their families, which have the power to significantly improve outcomes by integrating a focus on well-being into their policies, programs and practices. The Children in Foster Care with Parents in Federal Prison Toolkit includes:

  • Answers to questions frequently asked by social workers and prison and residential reentry center staff
  • Definitions of terms used by the various agencies
  • Timelines for important events that affect parents and children
  • Contact information for State Child Welfare Agencies
  • Additional Resources that would be helpful for parents and staff
  • The toolkit will call attention to resources available to children of incarcerated parents and identify the ways in which government programs and other services can address their potentially unique social and emotional needs. By increasing awareness and building knowledge and capacity of programs and services, the likelihood that these children will succeed improves.

For additional resources, visit Find Youth Info's Children of Incarcerated Parents Page.

Sesame Workshop  

Free materials are being distributed this week to our stakeholders developed by one of the best, beloved sources of early childhood development: Sesame Workshop. Its “Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration” Campaign includes multimedia, bilingual (English/Spanish) materials targeting young children of incarcerated parents, their families and caregivers, and the range of other professionals who interact with these children.

(See a 2-minute Highlight from Sesame Workshop).

Sesame Workshop believes the incarceration of a loved one can be very overwhelming for both children and caregivers. The very act can bring about big changes and transitions. But Sesame Workshop feels there are simple everyday ways to help comfort a child and guide him or her through these tough moments. Here are some tools produced:

Photo, Champions of Change Event

“Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration" and the Children of Incarcerated Parents Working Group's toolkit will be distributed by HHS through ACF programs, including: Office of Family Assistance, Office of Head Start and Office of Child Support Enforcement.

“When these children are given the attention and love they need, these children will thrive," said Secretary Sebelius at the ceremony.

She recognized the following community leaders who were selected as Champions of Change: Dee Ann Newell, Nell Bernstein, Elizabeth Gaynes, Ann Adalist-Estrin, Carol Burton, Carol Fennelly, Wilson Groode, Gail Smith, Sister Tesa Fitzgerald, Yali Lincroft, Claire Walker “Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration”and Susan Phillips. Here are their biographies:

Carol Burton, Oakland, CA

Carol F. Burton, has been working with, and on behalf of incarcerated parents and their children for almost 24 years.  As an innovative change agent she leads the Alameda County Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership, serves as the Executive Director of Centerforce in Northern and Central California and is the immediate past board chair of the Family and Corrections Network.  Her responsibilities at Centerforce include the operation of the nationally recognized M.O.M.S. program, a partnership with Oakland Housing Authority to provide stable housing and wraparound services for formerly incarcerated pregnant and parenting mothers and their children. She has also developed curricula and media material, served as an advisor on several initiatives including “Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration” and was the Director for the country’s first comprehensive program and longitudinal study of children of incarcerated parents in Flint, Michigan.  Her ability to build strong relationships across systems and translate research into practical, feasible policy recommendations has resulted in practices and policies throughout the country that support children and their families.   Carol is a native of Benton Harbor, Michigan and resides in Oakland, California.

Carol Fennelly, Washington, DC

For nearly four decades Carol Fennelly has been a voice for dispossessed and forgotten people in the nation’s capital.  For 17 years she worked and lived at the Community for Creative Non-Violence homeless shelters creating innovative programs and affecting public policy on homeless and housing issues.   In 1998 as the District’s Lorton Correctional Institution was closing and thousands of DC prisoners were being shipped far from home, Carol started Hope House to help fathers in prison stay connected to their children and families.  Through Hope House’s Father to Child Programs, thousands of fathers have been able to play an important role in the lives of their children, even from behind bars.

Dee Ann Newell, Little Rock, AR

Dee Ann Newell is a native of Little Rock, Arkansas.  Dee Ann attended college in New York City at Finch College and obtained a Master’s Degree in Developmental Psychology from Columbia University. 25 years ago, she was a volunteer, teaching parenting in prison and jail, and began serving the children and caregivers in 1994, founding the only statewide organization to serve these families, Arkansas Voices for the Children Left Behind.  These services have been fine-tuned over the past two decades and have sustained the mission of justice for children and their families, including racial, social, family, economic, health, and education justice that will bring forth the safety, security and stability of these families and the children.  The organization works with families from pre-entry through one year of post-release and longer. Dee Ann is the recipient of a Soros Foundation Senior Justice Fellowship of the Open Society, working with 14 state coalitions to improve practice and policies on behalf of the children of the incarcerated in these areas, serves on the National Re-Entry Resource Center on Families and Communities, coordinates the National Policy Partnership for Children of the Incarcerated, provides training at the University of California at Davis, and serves on the Central Arkansas Re-Entry Coalition Steering Committee.

Wilson Goode, Philadelphia, PA

In 2000, Rev. Dr. W. Wilson Goode, Sr., who is known affectionately as the “father” of the Children of Prisoners Movement in the country, organized Amachi, an effective mentoring program for children of incarcerated parents. He began implementing the program in just four sections of Philadelphia, and soon thereafter it was replicated nationwide with the creation of at least 350 Amachi-modeled programs that have served more than 300,000 youth in all 50 states. Prior to Dr. Goode’s work with Amachi, he served as Chairman of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, Managing Director of the City of Philadelphia, two terms as Mayor of Philadelphia and Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education.  Dr. Goode regularly offers his expertise through consulting and speaking engagements, for which he has received numerous awards, certificates, and honors.

Elizabeth Gaynes, Hastings on Hudson, NY

Elizabeth Gaynes is the executive director of the Osborne Association, a multiservice nonprofit that implements and champions solutions that reduce the damage caused by crime and incarceration. During her 29 year tenure, Osborne has grown into NY’s leading provider of family-focused services to individuals affected by the criminal justice system. Using her own experience raising children whose father was incarcerated for much of their lives, she established FamilyWorks, the first comprehensive parenting program in a men’s state prison. In 2004, along with her daughter Emani Davis, she was the first American nominated for the prestigious World’s Children’s Prize for the Rights of the Child, for defending the rights of children with incarcerated parents.  Ms. Gaynes has a JD degree from Syracuse Law School. 

Gail Smith, Chicago, IL

Gail T. Smith founded CLAIM (Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers) in 1985. She convened the Illinois Task Force for Children of Prisoners, Children of Promise, which won improvements including a children’s visiting center at Cook County Jail.  Among other initiatives, Gail has written and championed legislation to ban use of shackles on pregnant women; promoted community alternatives to prison for parents charged with nonviolent offenses to keep parents and children together; and worked to reduce termination of parental rights and to promote restorative justice practices.

Nell Bernstein, San Francisco, CA

Nell Bernstein is the author of All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated, and the coordinator of the San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership, which advocates for a Bill of Rights that has been adopted by coalitions and legislative bodies across the country. Published by The New Press, All Alone in the World was selected as a pick of the week by Newsweek Magazine, a best book of the year by the San Francisco Chronicle, and a top ten book of the year by the Online Review of Books, and has been adopted into the curricula of universities across the country. Ms. Bernstein has addressed policy makers, grant makers, criminal justice professionals and the public across the country about the impact of incarceration on families, and made numerous radio and television appearances. Her writing has appeared in numerous national magazines, and she has been awarded both a media fellowship from the Open Society Institute and a Journalism Fellowship in Child and Family Policy from the University of Maryland, School of Journalism. She is currently working on a book on juvenile justice.

Sister Tesa Fitzgerald, Queens, NY

Sister Tesa Fitzgerald, a Sister of Saint Joseph of Brentwood, has spent the last 26 years as the founding Executive Director of Hour Children, a nonprofit program based in Queens, NY, that provides comprehensive support within the prison walls and in the community - including prison visitation, supportive housing, job training and placement, mentoring, mental health support, and child care - to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women and their children.   Believing, wholeheartedly, in a person’s potential to change and acknowledging every child’s right to a stable and secure family, Sister Tesa lives among and stands beside the families that she serves helping them to achieve their potential.  

Yali Lincroft, Albany, CA

Yali Lincroft is a Policy Consultant for First Focus and a Program Officer with the Walter S. Johnson Foundation. In October 2012, Yali helped develop California's "Reuniting Immigrant Families Act" (SB1064), the first legislation passed in the country to address family separation issues as a consequence of immigration enforcement.  The bill is being replicated in other states and in federal legislative efforts.  She is also the founding member of the Migration and Child Welfare National Network, a coalition of organizations focused on helping immigrant families in the child welfare system.

Claire Walker, Pittsburgh, PA

Claire Walker began her career by obtaining her PhD at Columbia University.  She then spent the next 45 years organizing communities to advocate for urgent reforms to protect children and families in today’s world.  She led a neighborhood movement to protect people from needlessly languishing in jail after arrest in Reading Pennsylvania, created a successful agency to prevent and treat child abuse in Pittsburgh, and for the past decade has brought together all parts of the Pittsburgh community to address the needs of children whose parents are incarcerated.  She retired as Executive Director of the Pittsburgh Child Guidance Foundation in December 2012 and continues to champion incarcerated parents’ rights to parent and their children’s rights to be parented through her recent appointment to the Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board and participation in the work of the Children’s Roundtable of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

Ann Adalist-Estrin, Wyncote, PA

Ann Adalist-Estrin is Director of the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated in Philadelphia. Under Ann’s leadership, NRCCFI has provided consultation to government and non-government agencies and community programs in 47 states including Connecticut’s state wide Children of Incarcerated Parents Initiative; Sesame Street; Austin Independent School District, Prison Fellowship Ministries and The Red Heart Association of Taiwan.  She is author of The Impact of Parental Incarceration on Children in the Child Welfare System Curriculum (New Jersey Department of Children and Families, 2011)  Mentoring Children of Prisoners Curriculum (CWLA, 2004) Responding to Children and Families of Prisoners:  A Community Guide (FCN, 2003), and The Children of Incarcerated Parents Library available online at www.fcnetwork.  Ann is also a Child and Family Therapist at Samaritan Counseling Center in Jenkintown, PA; a trainer for the Healthy Steps for Young Children Program at Boston University School of Medicine; and adjunct faculty at Rutgers University, Camden New Jersey.

Susan Phillips, Washington, D.C.

Dr. Susan D. Phillips is known for her seminal research on ways in which parental arrest and incarceration adversely affect children, families, and communities.  A number of her studies focus on the relationship between the disproportionate representation of black parents in the criminal justice and black children in the child welfare system. Others examine how parental arrest and incarceration influence children’s mental health outcomes of children.  Her work emphasizes the application of research to inform public policy and services that promote the well-being of children in families involved with criminal justice system.

ACF Logo
The ACF Family Room Blog features articles on children, youth and families. The blog has featured articles highlighting work being done by the Administration for Children & Families (ACF),... More about this author

Improving the Future for Children of Incarcerated Parents

Was this page helpful?