In some instances the men I met ‘inside’ sired children from several different women, being little more than sperm donors; mostly though there were men struggling with the unforeseen circumstances of how to be a father to their sons and daughters when their interaction with them is limited to the weekly visitation if they are fortunate to be housed in a prison close enough to make this possible. Since becoming involved with Our Children’s Place, my reading on the subject has revealed factors I’d not thought about before; how these children are worse than orphans in many ways.
Society’s response to the orphan is often automatically one of concern and support; go to any civic or religious group and ask for them to support the orphaned child and there is an outpouring of sympathy and care for those children whose parent or parents have died. Their classmates in school, while not really understanding perhaps the loss that has impacted their friends lives, support them and continue to be friendly toward them. It is as if all of society rushes to the side of such children; we want to comfort them, even to the point of adoption as I have seen over and over in many of those I know at the Chapel Hill Bible Church.
The response to a child of a prisoner is almost always very different.
The child whose mother or father is taken from them in such a fashion (in a few cases it may be both parents) is not the focus of society’s support and concern. While perhaps not intending such, we look askance at the child of a prisoner; it is as if we tar them with the same brush we have painted their parent(s) and turn away from them instead of turning toward them. The shame and stigma of having a parent in prison is very real, the cruelty of these children’s classmates toward them is also a reality that they have to deal with on a daily basis and so often those who would want to help do not understand how to do so.
Recently Sesame Street has stepped into the picture to help us understand the plight of these children through a teaching package they have entitled, Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration. In this we meet Alex whose father is in prison and seeks to avoid his friends who talk of having their dads help them with building toy cars to play with each other. In this and the accompanying material, the writers and producers seek to educate us about the challenges that such children face daily; in the case of parents who have been sentenced to life in prison, they are orphans in all but fact as they never again will have a normal life with that parent in their lives.
What can we do to help? I challenge you to go to your local library and ask for the Sesame Street video; watch it to begin to gain an understanding of how the child of the prisoner is an orphan and needs the same support that we provide others in crisis. Contact Our Children’s Place and ask how to become involved in financially supporting their efforts to not only raise awareness of the plight of these orphans, but to bring community resource to bear in providing as normal a life as possible for them.