Elizabeth Gaynes: Champion of Change for Children of Incarcerated Parents

Jun 28, 2013, 2:10 PM

Elizabeth Gaynes, Executive Director of the Osborne Association Elizabeth Gaynes, Executive Director of the Osborne Association

At least two million children in the U.S. have at least one parent in prison, a situation now recognized as an adverse childhood experience, which can put children at risk for poor mental and physical health, due in part to isolation and a lack of family connectedness with their incarcerated parents. 

The Osborne Association, based in New York City, works with people who have been in conflict with the law, and their families. Osborne is currently using funding from a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Roadmaps to Health community grant to advocate for the use of Family Impact Statements in New York State during prison sentencing and the inclusion of "proximity to children" as a factor in prison assignments in New York State. Family Impact statements convey to a judge how the family of a person convicted of a crime will be affected by various sentencing decisions. With their proximity advocacy, the goal is to increase visiting opportunities for families during periods of incarceration by assigning parents to closer prisons and expanding opportunities for kids to have contact with incarcerated parents through televisiting. Research has shown that having strong family ties increases the likelihood of family reunification following a parent’s prison stay, as well as the child’s long-term health and wellbeing. The goal of both policy reform efforts is to reduce the trauma of parent-child separation for children, thereby promoting their health and well-being.

Elizabeth Gaynes, Osborne’s executive director, was recognized recently as a White House Champion of Change for her work with the children of incarcerated parents. NewPublicHealth spoke with Gaynes about ways to protect the health and wellbeing of the 2.7 million children whose parents are in prison on any given day. Gaynes also spoke about how her former husband, the father of her two children, spent over twenty years in prison, and the impact this had on her family.

NewPublicHealth: Why do you think this issue of parental incarceration has not gotten enough attention previously?

Elizabeth Gaynes: There is no specific agency with direct responsibility for kids of incarcerated parents and the kids don’t tend to identify themselves. And until recently it wasn’t thought of as anything that needed identifying. When I was looking for a therapist for my kids, the people I spoke to said “we would treat this like any other abandonment.” And I said, “Really? But he didn’t actually abandon them.” So I think that there is no system that is responsible for them and because of the stigma they don’t self-identify. We’ve had some young people who went to do talks in high schools and asked the kids in the class at the beginning if they knew anyone who was in, or had been in, prison. At the beginning of her talk, two kids raised their hands. She said after she spoke and said her own dad had been in prison, she asked the question again and 12 kids raised their hands.

NPH: Your Roadmaps to Health community grant is about advocating for the use of Family Impact Statements during sentencing and adding "proximity to children" to prison assignment decision-making to increase visiting opportunities for families during periods of incarceration. Tell us about these.

Gaynes: In a state like New York, we have tons of prisons built up near the Canadian border where no one lives, and they’re unlikely to move because often they’re the only jobs programs in those areas, which are often very economically depressed. This is true in states all around the country. There are more prisons than Wal-Mart, but generally they’re not built to be near where people live. In New York, the majority of incarcerated parents are more than 100 miles from where their children live and sometimes more than 250 miles and they tend to be in these rural areas where there isn’t even good public transportation to get there, if you even have a car.

When the Osborne Association takes kids on visits to prisons in that area, for example, we fly to Rochester and we rent a bus to get to the prison. For people traveling on their own, it would be a $60-$80 taxi ride to the prison from the closest bus station or from the train station. So a key part of our grant was that after determining the best prison for security and a prisoner’s mental health needs, the next most senior factor to be considered should be proximity to children. That can make a big difference in being able to keep kids connected to their parents. We’ve used the funding on advocacy to make proximity a sentencing factor.

We’ve been advocating for adding a Family Impact Statement so that the Probation Department has to write and the judge has to consider how an incarceration sentence would affect the children and families. It doesn’t require them to not send somebody to prison. They can still make exactly the same decision, but this would make them aware of the fact that if this person goes to prison, this child could go into the child welfare system or child support will stop, or he’ll no longer be able to pick up the child from school every day and look after her until the mom gets home from work. In addition to visits, we hope that in cases where there was thought to do an alternative to incarceration that they would take into account the impact on children when they make the decision.

NPH: What are the kinds of community partnerships that have been most effective in helping to improve the situation for children of incarcerated parents?

Gaynes: The director of our initiative, who’s also the lead person on this grant, Tanya Krupat, started out with seven nonprofit organizations that generally focused on women and children and she has now built a partnership of 65 organizations that include city agencies, state agencies, universities and nonprofits. There’s also a partnership that meets three times a year in the Office of the Brooklyn District Attorney and includes prosecutors, the Police Athletic League, the departments of Education and Corrections, and Victim Services. Our premise was your agency probably has policies that negatively affect children of incarcerated parents and you don’t even know it and you never intended it.

A lot of judges had never been in a prison visiting room and are denying visits for kids to see their parents in prison based on their assumption that it wasn’t good for children. Part of what the community partnership has done is to take people involved in sentencing to see the visiting rooms and children’s centers because we always say the walls are there to keep the public out as much as to keep the prisoners in, and so people’s imagination of a visit is much worse than the reality. We’ve been able to convince a lot of family court judges that it’s not so bad.

NPH: What’s next?

Gaynes: The governor of New York State, Andrew Cuomo, has given the Osborne Association a closed prison to turn into a reentry center for people coming home from prison to help them find work, housing and other needs.

What I’m trying to do with Osborne is to have whatever door someone comes to us through —a job, a house—to also find out about their children. These kids need a village; they need us to be able to work with the entire family. For Osborne, we want to really make sure we’re staying with that family all the way through. So I think that’s the next big thing is to make sure that we deal with this issue from the whole trajectory from the time of arrest until the family is fully reintegrated or fully separated.

>>Bonus Link: Read a fact sheet from the Osborne Association on their initiative in New York City, which includes the Children of Incarcerated Parents Bill of Rights developed by the San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership. “They’re not exactly enforceable, but it’s a framework for seeing the perspective of a child’s right to a relationship with a parent,” says Elizabeth Gaynes.

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