I’m so very proud of the new Miss America, Laura Kaeppeler. First, because she is from my hometown of Kenosha, Wis., and second, because she’s used her own experience to help a lot of hurting kids. If you don’t know Ms. Kaeppeler’s story, it begins when her father, Jeff, was arrested when she was a 14-year-old high-schooler. He went to trial and was sent to serve 18 months in federal prison for mail fraud when she was at Carthage College studying music.
This impacted Laura’s life, much like the other estimated 10 million children who will experience having a parent imprisoned. She started a mentoring nonprofit called Circles of Support to assist children living with a parent behind bars.
According to the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 3 percent of Americans live either behind bars, under parole supervision or on probation. This means that more than 7.2 million adults in 2009 lived under the shadow of a court sentence. An additional 86,927 juveniles were living in juvenile correctional facilities.
That’s a LOT of kids being impacted. And since most people who are serving time in a prison have a sentence from 3-15 years, it can take a huge chunk out of a childhood spent with a parent. How do we help children with such massive holes in their lives to keep them from following their parents into the juvenile justice or prison systems?
Consider work like Kaeppeler’s Circles of Support or the Wintley Phipp’s U.S. Dream Academy which provides a three-step program to assist affected children. The U.S. Dream Academy focuses on three things in children’s lives:
1. Skill Building – assisting children with school success.
2. Character Building – to help children “apply the five fundamental values of peace, love, truth, right action, and non-violence in their lives.”
3. Dream Building – “Helps students to broaden their understanding of what their options and opportunities are, while eliminating the possibility of incarceration from their framework of reference. “
When being interviewed by the judges at the Miss America pageant in Las Vegas, Ms. Kaeppeler said she wanted children of incarcerated adults to feel less alone, to have mentoring and as much of a relationship with their parents as possible.
Since I had two foster girls who had parents who were incarcerated, I know how very difficult this last item on Ms. Kaeppeler’s wish list is to accomplish in a child’s life. My two girls’ parents were incarcerated for some type of drug offense, resulting in long-term prison sentences. Their mom was housed in an Illinois women’s prison, while their father was sent eight hours south to a men’s prison. When I had the girls, I heard that the last time they’d seen their father was two years before. There wasn’t much contact between the kids and their father, so we were encouraged to schedule a Christmas visit. The difficulty and cost of such a trip is often prohibitive, especially with a breadwinner behind bars.
I must admit, it was my first visit to any type of prison or jail. It was pretty intimidating to have to make a reservation with the jail, providing identification of all visitors ahead of time so that the jail could approve our visit. On the day of the visit, we got our five children up early (my own three biological children and the two foster girls), to hit the road in time to make visiting hours at the prison.
Once we arrived, my purse was searched, the children’s colored drawings for their dad were inspected and we had to walk through a metal detector, before being locked into the family visit room. I was relying on my girls to remember their father, since I had no idea what he looked like. They light up like Christmas trees when they caught sight of an Abraham Lincoln-esque figure in prison blues who walked across the room.
As a foster parent, I didn’t want to intrude on the first visit in years with his children, so I never really talked with their dad. But, he looked very happy to see them and promised his little girls the world. I heard him promise to get out of prison and to get a house where all of the family could be together again. Since the family included four other siblings, my heart broke a little when I realized how very tough that task would be for him, a former felon. Later I heard that he, like a lot of prisoners, had his parental rights terminated, which is only one of the tragic outcomes of incarcerating parents.
This year’s Miss America has a message to those children whose parents end up serving a prison sentence. “There are many of you out there — and I was one of them — but it doesn’t have to define you,” Kaeppeler told The Associated Press.
Resources for Children of the Incarcerated
Family and Corrections Network: http://www.fcnetwork.org/
Prison Fellowship: http://www.pfm.org/default_pf_org.asp
The Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents: http://www.e-ccip.org/
Serving Children and Families of Adult Offenders: A Directory of Programs: http://www.nicic.org/Library/020200