As Melissa Harris-Perry noted at the top of her weekly “Foot Soldier” segment today, a study released by the U.S. Senate in 2000 found that 70% of children with an incarcerated parent end up in the same cycle, entering the criminal justice system at some point in their lives. Melissa’s “Foot Soldier” this week, Sharon Content, is determined to break that cycle.
After giving up a Wall Street job to work in the non-profit world, Sharon encountered the dilemma of kids with imprisoned parents, which felt like a problem with no solution. Kids with incarcerated parents often face stigma, embarrassment and shame. Holding tight to the secret of having a parent behind bars can manifest in behavioral issues, lack of interest in school work, anger, and health problems.
How Content addressed that seemingly unsolvable problem is by is by starting a non-profit called Children of Promise. Based in Brooklyn, N.Y., Children of Promise functions like traditional after-school programs and summer camps — with arts classes, sports, and academic support — but it is also a mentoring program, a safe space for children to share their similar experiences. One year ago, it also became a licensed mental health clinic.
I spoke to Content about the genesis of her program earlier this week.
LR: How did you come up with the idea for this program, why did you start Children of Promise?
SC: First, I was actually on Wall Street. Out of college Wall Street was the hot, sexy place to work, but after about three years I decided that really wasn’t the direction I wanted to go in. I wanted to go in and focus my efforts and energies working more with issues that affected inner city communities, and urban communities. I had a finance background, so at first I thought I was really going to be working in housing or urban community development, but my first non-profit job was actually working with youth at an Alternative to Incarceration (ATI) program. This was an ATI program where young people were mandated by the court to attend this particular program [that] used entrepreneurship as the primary tool to teach young people that they have various options and skills. That’s where my business background came in, and my finance background. Once I worked there I realized that working with young people was really my calling, what I wanted to do. When I left there, I worked with more traditional after school programs like the Boys and Girls Club. While working there, I realized that [children with incarcerated parents were] a population that I didn’t have anywhere to refer to that could deal with their particular issues. So I decided I was going to start an organization for a population that I felt was really neglected or ignored by society. I really consider them an invisible population. We can have our sentiments on crime and the prosecution of crime, but no one really thinks of the number of young people that are left behind and have to deal with the issues as a result of having their parents in prison.
LR: What has founding and running this program taught you?
SC: It has taught me on a number of levels. First, on a personal level, it has taught me how rewarding it is to do something that you’re so passionate about. It’s so rewarding when working with young people to see the effects of your hard work. I find that to be so satisfying and so gratifying, really working with a group of people that are so committed to young people. As I say to the teens that we work with, there’s no drug that could make me as high as I am every morning to get in my car to drive from New Jersey to Brooklyn every day, with such joy and such satisfaction. There’s nothing better or more satisfying in life than doing that. We all have to work, we all have to bring resources into our households, but to do it in something that you totally enjoy, and you’re so passionate about, you realize that it’s really making a difference. As my staff always says, Ms. Content, we’re saving lives, we’re really saving lives. Statistics show that 70% of the children of an incarcerated parent repeats the cycle either as a juvenile or an adult. We serve 200 young people a year, so potentially 140 of them could enter the system, but in the five years that we’ve been in existence, none of our young people have entered the criminal justice system. So we know we’re saving lives. We know we’re making changes in people’s lives that will ultimately affect them as an adult.
LR: That statistic jumped out at me when I read Samantha Michaels’ article on State of the Re:Union. Can you tell me more about this?
SC: It’s a funny statistic … a large number of my colleagues really do not like that statistic, in that it advances the preconceived notions that a young person will repeat the cycle because their parent has committed a crime. I agree with that statistic. Working with young people for the last five years, the reason I believe that the cycle continues … Ultimately someone may hear that statistic and think, “Oh, well, they saw their parent committing a crime so they will,” or, “the morals in that family are somewhat lower than another family.” Or, “the choice [which] that parent made is somehow reflecting on the child to create negative behavior.” I really think it has nothing to do with that… A child of an imprisoned parent, as a result of that, due to the stigma and the shame that’s connected with the choices made by their parents- a support system isn’t in place. That’s why I think the cycle continues so greatly for this population. You now have a young person that’s dealing with the anger, the depression, the stigma, the embarrassment, the secret of having a parent in prison, whereas say, a child who loses a parent to divorce, military deployment, or death — receives a level of support. Children of imprisoned parents’ people don’t have the support system in place. So when you don’t have the support system in place, you don’t have as many options available to you, so you’re going to make choices that are just more readily available to you. Which might be negative.
I think that the cycle continues, not for the reason that society will think when they hear that statistic, [but] because the support systems are not in place for these young people. And that is the entire model for Children of Promise in that we are creating the support system. And it’s a holistic approach in that it’s a mentoring program, it’s a safe space for these young people to come in and share similar experiences. We’re also a licensed mental health clinic. That means that young people can get the therapeutic services that they need so that they can deal with the issues from the inside out. There could be the best SAT after-school program, or the best recreational soccer program, but it’s really the issue from the inside, the challenges that affect the self-esteem of these young people that makes them … When you have low self-esteem and you’re so defensive, when you’re eight years old, you’re going to beat up the kid next to you because he looked at you the wrong way. When really, the kid was just looking at you, but you’re so defensive and angry, and depressed, and you’re wondering why your mom isn’t out here attending the school play when his mom is. It’s the model that we designed that provides this holistic approach that provides all of the support system, so we also respect that parent-child relationship. We send letters into the prisons; we send pictures and report cards. We still respect that relationship regardless of the decisions that that parent made that landed them in prison. It’s not for us to judge; we just know that Johnny’s here and that Johnny’s hurting, how do I keep Johnny out of prison? It’s not by disrespecting that relationship.
LR: What are the new developments this year at Children of Promise?
SC: We just initiated a new program, in that we just purchased a van. A donor donated some money and we just bought a brand new fifteen-seater van. Now, every weekend, we are going up to the various correctional facilities, so that the young people can visit their imprisoned parent. You know, these prions are not near Amtrak stops, they’re in remote areas. So now we are setting up this new initiative… once our mental health staff has identified that it is a positive relationship, and that [the reason for incarceration] wasn’t an infraction against the child. We are supporting the grandmothers that are now raising the young people. Thirty percent of our caregivers are grandmothers. We have to support grandma, whose daughter is in prison raising her three kids, so that the three kids can get up there to see their mom.
LR: And in many cases, “grandma” doesn’t have a car?
SC: NO! Absolutely not. And if you know anything about these vendors that provide transportation up to these facilities, they leave from outside train stations. They leave from central train stations in New York, like Columbus Circle, or 125th Street, which are major hubs for the train station, but you’re waiting outside, in inclement weather, in the rain, in the cold, in the snow –
LR: And they have children with them.
SC: — and they’re with children. So we’ve started a business where we’re leaving from indoors, we’re providing breakfast to our parents – because as you can imagine, you’re catching a bus at four in the morning. You’re running, you’re trying to get there on time. I said, “You know what? Let’s provide breakfast to the moms when they get here so they can feed the kids, before they get on the bus.”
Our program is really designed based on the needs that we have identified, that the parents have brought to our attention. We have then molded our program to meet these needs. And one of [those needs] is to bring our families up to visit their loved ones that are in prison.