Some Surprising Lessons on Criminal Justice From Miss America

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I couldn’t hide my disappointment. There she was on the program, Miss America, Laura Kaeppeler, the keynote speaker.

What better person to address the several thousand attending the American Correctional Association conference in Denver last month?

Are they kidding, I thought. What could she possibly share with correctional professionals that could increase our understanding on the important issues facing adult and juvenile corrections?

Suffice it to say, I was ready to dismiss her presentation. I braced myself for stereotypical pageant themes about saving the world along with simplistic generalities and a great smile.

Yes, she was beautiful, poised and articulate.

But Miss America had an unexpected personal story that the crowd was very much interested in.

You see this Miss America is the child of an incarcerated parent. She spoke of the trauma faced by children like her with a passion born of experience; a family that struggled with the shame of an incarcerated father, the loss of economic stability and the anger that could have taken a self-destructive path.

She told us how it was difficult to go to school and face the other children who made fun of her and that she felt somehow guilty in an indescribable way. The father’s incarceration led to her parent’s divorce.  Difficult as it was, she and her two sisters visited her father in prison.

“If visiting parents in prison is supposed to help heal wounds and keep family bonds connected, nothing about the experience helped foster that,” she explained in her address to the convention.

It was just one more regular reminder of the devastation her father visited upon her family. But she did help us all understand that creating the best possible experience for children visiting incarcerated parents is just as important as offender counseling.

Creating a good visitation experience also translates to juvenile secure facilities. We know that many children in juvenile facilities are parents of children and helping incarcerated young parents nurture bonds with their children helps them both. The statistics are alarming for both adult and juveniles that are incarcerated. The children of incarcerated individuals have a higher rate of crime and delinquency.

Approximately 1.7 million children in the nation have a parent in prison or jail, according to a 2009 report by the Sentencing Project. More than 10 million children have had a parent spend time behind bars, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

These children face the difficulties of growing up with this additional burden. Child neglect, drug use and dropping out of school are all by-products of failing to cope with the situation.

Our Miss America, Laura Kaeppeler, overcame the odds. She found support and encouragement. A smart girl with talent was pointed in the right direction, but she admits it could have easily gone down another less productive path.

Don’t we see kids every day and wonder why they isolate themselves or alternatively bring on the wrong kind of attention? We see them in school, we see them at the Y or Boy’s and Girl’s Clubs, but we don’t know how to find out what is wrong.

Miss America confirmed for me the age-old adage; it takes just one caring adult to make a difference. If a child sees you care they may just show you how you can help.

 

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