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‘They Need to Know They are Loved’: Centerforce’s Carol Burton on Sesame Workshop’s Incarceration Initiative

The number of children with an incarcerated parent has increased nearly 80% in the past 20 years. Nearly 2.7 million children have a parent in state or federal prison, yet few resources exist to support young children and families coping with this life-changing circumstance. Children need tools to express emotions, while their caregivers need help maintaining routines and establishing age-appropriate communication around incarceration. That’s why Sesame Workshop has created Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration, a new outreach initiative.

This bilingual, multimedia initiative includes material that can help young children with an incarcerated parent find support, comfort and reduced levels of anxiety and sadness, as well as provides parents and care-givers with strategies, tips, and age-appropriate language they can use to help communicate with their children about incarceration.

The Little Children, Big Challenges initiative, which includes efforts to address the loss of a parent, divorce, incarceration and other difficult situations young children face, grew out of Sesame Workshop’s Military Families initiative.

To learn more about why children with incarcerated parents are in need of support, Sesame Workshop sat down with Carol F. Burton, executive director of Centerforce, a non-profit dedicated to supporting individuals and families impacted by incarceration. Ms. Burton also served as an advisor to Sesame Workshop during the development of the Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration initiative

Sesame Workshop:  To start off, tell us about the state of children in the United States with an incarcerated parent today.

Carol Burton: There are several million children impacted by incarceration in this country. They really are the silent victims of the war on crime over the last twenty years. They are the collateral damage. No one is paying attention to them. When someone is incarcerated, institutions are responsible for their custody and care. Children are left back in the community – communities that are often ravaged by drugs, crime and violence. Lots of those kids are left unattended.

That is the real state of care for children with an incarcerated parent. Some are doing pretty well. Others are faring poorly. We don’t even know what’s happening with a significant group of them. They fall under the responsibility of no public institution – none that provide support or care as we remove their parents from their home.

SW: Tell us more about Centerforce and the work it does with people impact by incarceration.

CB: Centerforce is a non-profit working with people who live in prison, their families and the communities that are impacted by incarceration. We started in a house outside of San Quentin State Prison in California. We helped ensure that prisons had visitor centers that provided resources, shelter and materials for loved ones visiting inmates.

Today we serve adults with high risk health behaviors who live in prison, provide support and education to parents in prison and jails, and help with the difficult process of reuniting incarcerated individuals with their families. We also work with youth who are going into the juvenile justice system.

SW: Having a parent removed from your home is undoubtedly a difficult event for a child. What do children struggle with in the wake of having a parent incarcerated?

CB: Guilt. Some of the children feel responsible for having their parents removed and incarcerated. They often say, “If I could have gotten better grades or behaved better, this wouldn’t have happened.” They think it’s something about them. Of course there is sadness and a sense of loss, because they miss and love their parent. There is some shame that is associated with it. The other parents and caregivers around them don’t talk about it, so they learn it’s something to be ashamed of. Shame, guilt, and sadness can all lead to anger as well.

SW: What messages should children be hearing from caregivers or their non-incarcerated parent?

CB: They need to know that they are loved regardless of where their other parent is. If their parent can’t demonstrate that, the other adults around them need to help them feel loved and need to remind them it’s not their fault. Those are the two major things: They need to know they are loved and it’s not their fault. After that, there are some other things that help. For instance, discussing where the other parent is and when he or she is coming home.

SW: How do you feel that an organization like Sesame Workshop is tackling this issue?

CB: When I first heard about it, I was ecstatic. I thought, “Finally someone is paying attention to this.” Of course you know Sesame Street is loved by everyone and does really good work. So for them to be taking this on, my reaction was just pure excitement and joy.

18 months later, I realize that if all the advocates for children of incarcerated parents worked for an entire lifetime to increase awareness, we could not do what Sesame will do with this initiative. It would not reach and impact the audience that Sesame Street will. We have people paying attention to the issue because Sesame Workshop has said, “this is important.” In some ways, we’ve already accomplished what would have taken us 50 years. I’m thrilled.

SW: As the initiative formally gets under way, what message would you like to leave with readers, parents and caregivers?

CB: All of our children need support if they are going to do well and thrive in the world. The Sesame Street incarceration kit gives adults who care for children with an incarcerated parent the tools they need to provide that support. The adults now have the tools in their hands necessary to help their children feel strong, loved, protected and valued.

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