by Valerie Verkamp
Mass incarceration has far-reaching consequences on children with parents behind bars.
While a parent carries out his or her sentence, the child often suffers a diminished sense of belonging from a collapse in the family structure. Even offenders serving relatively short sentences struggle to maintain a connection with their offspring.
Very young children cry when their incarcerated mother tries to hold them at visits. Older children are at a loss for words from living what feels like a world apart from their parent. Offenders often struggle to engage their children in meaningful conversation.
The deterioration of their family bond is even palpable to outsiders.
Dr. Dana Abendschein, an associate professor of medicine, cell biology and physiology at Washington University in St. Louis, said it was these heartwrenching scenes that inspired him to get involved in nurturing the relationship between incarcerated parents and their children.
It all began when Dana and his wife, Jane Abendschein, were invited to entertain women, displaced from the rising flood waters of the Renz Women's Penitentiary on Mother's Day 1983. Volunteers brought the children of incarcerated inmates to visit them on this special occasion. While performing a clown act at a cordoned off area at the men's Church Farm Correctional Center, Dr. Abendschein witnessed how disconnected incarcerated mothers were from their kids.
“It really bothered us a lot,” Dr. Abendschein said. “Young children wanted their foster parent to hold them when they took pictures with their mother.”
Looking to bridge the divide caused by incarceration, Dr. Abendschein founded the Story Link Program, bringing books to life with audio recordings of the parent's voice.
At no cost to the family, offenders can record themselves reading a book and send both the children's book and an audio recording home as a gift to their child.
“Children listen to the recording over and over again, because they like to hear their parent's voice,” said Dr. Abendschein. “It is the tenderness of their father's voice that means a lot to them.”
“My dad has been reading and sending the books to us on tape for more than a year now,” said the daughter of an offender. “They are a treasure. It provides a link my children would otherwise not have with their grand-dad. I miss my dad, and listening to his voice provides real comfort--I must confess I listen to the stories alone in my car sometimes.”
Abendschein believes the program will help break the trends of old and change the course of tomorrow.
“Some of these offenders have no contact with their family members,” he said. “This program affords an opportunity for them to do something positive for their children or grandchildren. Even if they see their kids once in a while, the program really helps to achieve that closeness and the encouragement that a parent needs to give their kids.”
Most importantly the child receives a personal message of love from their incarcerated parent, either written on the opening page of the literature or communicated in the audio recording.
“They are able to tell their child they love them. They are thinking of them, and they haven't been forgotten,” he said.
Families participating in Story Link say it transcends the negative effects of incarceration on multiple levels. Not only does it foster meaningful communications about literature, but it cultivates good parenting.
“It has allowed the offenders to become the parents that they need to be for their kids,” said Dr. Abendschein. “I have heard offenders say 'I have never read a book to my child. I just didn't take the time to do that.'''
Now, yearning to stay in touch, many offenders return as often as they are permitted to record a read-a-loud of their choosing.
Most offenders glance over the collection of books, thoroughly searching for the perfect story to share with their child. He says parents often make their selection based on the book's content, seeking out children's books with useful messages.
From Aesop's Fables to White Fang, life lessons can be uncovered in a large variety of donated literature.
Story Link is also offered to offenders with nieces and nephews. The only condition Dr. Abendschein set is that offenders must be free of conduct violations for at least 90-days to be eligible to participate in the Story Link program.
Still, more than 500 offenders across the state participate each month.
Anywhere from 80 to 100 volunteers visit 18 out of 20 Missouri correctional facilities to facilitate Story Link. They assist offenders with locating age-appropriate books for their children and help offenders pronounce unfamiliar words.
Offenders are often surprised by the volunteers' kind gesture of giving up their Saturday to serve offenders and their families.
“When offenders ask why, I tell them the feeling in my heart is that I couldn't see myself doing anything that is better than that,” said Dr. Abendschein. “It is so rewarding to know that I am helping them to do the right thing for their family.”
Last year, 829 female inmates registered their children to visit them at the Chillicothe Correctional Center. Located in Livingston County, the $121 million correctional center is about 90 miles from Kansas City. Not only is the distance a hardship for many families, but there is always the chance visitors will be turned away if the visiting room is at capacity by the time they arrive.
Even phone calls home come as a financial burden for families. These factors make it difficult for families to maintain ties with their loved ones.
Offenders say Story Link keeps them connected with their children without any additional burden placed on their loved ones. It also serves as a conversation starter for parents at a loss when it comes to engaging their child.
Dr. Abendschein said: “I was really amazed that when they get on the phone with their kids they don't know what to say to them, but this gives them an entrance. They can ask ‘how did you like that book?’”
Over the course of 18 years, more than 50,000 books and recordings have been mailed out. An offenders survey indicates the program has improved literacy and reading fluency. Offenders boast about their child's increased interest in books.
At the Vandalia Correctional Center, where about 1,716 female inmates are housed, Story Link's popularity is at an upsurge. More than 200 women have expressed interest in the program but due to limited resources women must wait a few months to participate.
Monetary donations and book donations support the reading program. But there is no doubt participation would surge if more resources were available.
Last year's statistics show there were 32,541 inmates serving time in Missouri.
For their children, it is comforting to listen to their parent's voice, reminding them of life before and how it can be after the heavy steel doors of prison are opened.