...but not locked out of their children's lives
Saturday, September 21, 2013 5:00 AM
This summer, Beth Parrish sat down with all six of her children for the first time in more than a year.
The family hugged, colored, enjoyed a meal together and even talked about life at home.
Home for Parrish is Mount Vernon, Ind., though she's currently away from her family serving a prison sentence for drug offenses at the Women's Correctional Facility in Madison.
In August, her family traveled to Madison as part of a program that works to reintegrate offenders with their children and their children's caregivers.
The program uses counselors for guided interactions between caregivers, children and the inmates to increase quality visits and work toward reintegration once the offender is released.
More than 60 incarcerated mothers from the Madison facility, 110 children and 120 caregivers attended the program.
Parrish, 33, has served one year and has another three years to go. It's her second stint in prison for drug offenses.
"I have all little children, so we were on the floor playing with toys, and it was just the best," said Parrish, whose six children are ages 1 to 12.
The workshops are part of the Madison Women's Family and Communication Reintegration Project, which is funded through a federal Second Chance Act grant. During the program, which is set up as a series, inmates involved with the prison's therapeutic community for substance abusers participate in a weekly parenting education classes.
Through the grant, the family members and caregivers can enroll in the We Parent Family Preservation program, which is a seminar that runs every four to six weeks.
For the August workshop, the addiction staff at the prison centered the weekend seminars on the Sesame Street incarceration program, "Big Challenges, Little Children: Incarceration" program, which is aimed at helping younger children cope with parents in prison.
The Madison facility was the first in the country to implement the Sesame Street program - which came after PBS introduced the puppet Alex, whose father is incarcerated.
In the videos shown to the inmates and family members, Alex comes to realize that he is not alone and has friends and family to turn to.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 2.7 million minor children in America have a parent incarcerated. That breaks down to about one out of 28 children in the country.
Parrish, along with fellow inmates Margo Rossignol and Jessica Foster say the new character is a way to address a real issue in America and provide support for children.
"My kids are 9 and 10, so they're kind of too old for Sesame Street, but at the same time they were able to relate. ... It made them realize that there are people to talk to and there are people willing to listen, and that they're not alone," said Foster, a 32-year-old from Ligonier, Ind.
"It hurts my heart that there are so many people with parents incarcerated that they have to have this character, but at the same time I'm grateful kids are able to see it," she added.
Foster has served two and a half years and has another 18 months until her release.
In addition to providing counseling, the Second Chance Act grant provides families with gas cards and covers hotel expenses.
"It was hard for my family to make it this way," Parrish said. "They made it available to my family to be able to bring all the children."
Rossignol, a 31-year-old Jefferson County resident, also is serving a sentence for drug-related offenses. She has three children that she is lucky enough to see regularly.
Being local, she feels fortunate to have family close by, but added that many mothers at the facility do not.
"It's just a great opportunity to start building our relationships and mending them," Rossignol said. "I'm very fortunate because my family is close and I do get visits. ... But for a lot of people, it's been years since they've seen their families."
Rossignol is nine months from being released and hopes to use that time to work on the relationship with her children and the children's caregiver.
"Ultimately, the caregivers are the most important person in both our lives right now, because they're the ones that have been there," Rossignol said.
One of the biggest concern for all the mothers, of course, is to not pick up where they left off at the time they were arrested, she added.
"We have to make sure we're right first," Rossignol said.
The first integration workshop was held in June, but Foster, Parrish and Rossignol began their rehabilitation long ago.
The three women all are graduates of the prison's Growth, Responsibility, Integrity and Purpose (GRIP) program. About 170 offenders at the Madison facility are enrolled in the program.
They were not just participants; they were officers and mentors in the program, too. In fact, the classes inspired them so much that each of them would like to pursue a career in offender-based assistance after their release.
Parrish admits she had her doubts about enrolling in a substance abuse program at first, but those feelings quickly diminished after the first few sessions.
At home, she recalls getting caught up in the rough cycle of selling drugs in order to make ends meet for her children. She's seeing things much differently now, and the program has opened up a healthy dialogue between her and her children's caregivers.
"I'm so grateful I came to GRIP," Parish said. "I've learned so much about myself, about me being a better parent. Me and my family now can communicate openly. There are things I've learned in here that I never would have thought to use."
"It changes your thinking totally," Rossignol said.
After being sent away the second time for drug charges, Foster joined GRIP searching for answers about her addiction.
Her first sentence was three months, and she readily admits it wasn't enough time for her to rehabilitate.
"It's sad to say but that's the case," she said.
Today, Foster said she's still figuring out the person she is without the drug addiction and is preparing for the challenges ahead.
"Whatever it is, it can't be as scary as where I've been," she said.
Foster is already taking college courses and hopes to complete her studies in criminal justice and then focus on offender-based services.
She describes herself as "the person," in the sense that she has first-hand experience of the wrath of drug addiction.
But she also feels like she has plenty of successful experiences to share about the road to recovery.
"If I can do it from the situation that I was in, anyone can do it," she said.
To learn more about Sesame Street's "Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration" program, visit the website www.sesamestreet.org/parents/topicsandactivities/toolkits/incarceration.