Like Close to Two Millions Kids, New Sesame Street Character Has an Incarcerated Parent

Jun 13, 2013, 12:44 PM

file Scene from "Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration" video

How many children could possibly identify with a new Sesame Street character whose dad is in prison? Close to two million, according to many experts. A White House “Champions of Change” event yesterday honored twelve men and women who have spent their careers researching and improving the lives of children who have at least one parent in prison. That explains why Sesame Street released a new video and toolkit yesterday, as part of their "Little Children, Big Challenges" series, that tells the story of Alex, whose dad is in prison. Alex’s grown up and peer friends help him talk, and sing, about his feelings about his dad and how other people speak about his dad’s prison stay. The "Challenges" series includes issues many kids face such as divorce and a parent in the military, and the resources are distributed through therapist's offices, schools, jails and other key places to reach kids.

The White House program, led off by Domestic Policy Council director Cecilia Munoz and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, included panel discussions on the needs of kids whose parents are in jail, which is a recognized “adverse childhood experience”  that can lead to poor health outcomes as children become adults. Among the problems kids of incarcerated parents can face are decreased living standards, social isolation because of the stigma they feel about having a parent in prison, and long-term or permanent separation from the incarcerated parent.

>>Watch a CBS News story on the Sesame Street program that will help support kids with incarcerated parents.

Among the action items discussed were the need for strategies to lower the incarceration rate, which has skyrocketed in the last few decades; asking judges to consider the geographic distance from children when determining where a parent will be imprisoned; and improving the spaces where parent-child prison visits take place.

Champions honored yesterday included:

  • Wilson Goode, Philadelphia, Penn., who founded Amachi, a mentoring program for children of incarcerated parents that has worked with 300,000 young people in all fifty states.
  • Elizabeth Gaynes, Hastings on Hudson, NY, the executive director of the Osborne Association, which works to improve the lives of people impacted by incarceration.
  • Nell Bernstein, San Francisco, Calif., author ofAll Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated,” and coordinator of the San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership, which advocates for a Bill of Rights for children of incarcerated parents that has been adopted by coalitions and legislatures across the country.
  • Sister Tesa Fitzgerald, Queens, NY, the founding Executive Director of Hour Children, a nonprofit program that provides comprehensive support in prison and the community to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women and their children.  
  • Susan Phillips, Washington, D.C., who has researched how parental arrest and incarceration adversely affect children, families, and communities. 

Check back for a NewPublicHealth interview with Elizabeth Gaynes of the Osborne Association, which received a Roadmaps to Health community grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for their work with the justice system to factor in where children live when deciding on where to imprison parents.

>>Learn more about Adverse Childhood Experiences and their critical impact in a new infographic from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation:



This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.