A new Sesame Street production, with backing from the White House, is seeking to help preschool and grade-school children deal with the emotional trauma of having parents who are incarcerated. The new, national campaign has a local angle in that the Washington County jail will be an early test site and a University of Minnesota researcher will be studying whether it is effective.
The U's Rebecca Shlafer will conduct a comparative study of children entering the Washington County jail who view the Sesame DVD and other materials prior to seeing their incarcerated parents, and of children who don't. Shlafer said there has been little recognition until recently about the impact on young children of having parents who are incarcerated. They sometimes wonder if they are to blame, or feel badly because they might hear at school how only bad people ever end up in jail.
"Sometimes children in these circumstances have feeling of guilt like maybe this is their fault," said Shlafer, who was at the White House today for the announcement of the new campaign.
Creators from the New York-based Sesame Workshop hope the approachable Muppet-like characters in the materials will help children deal with the anxiety and stress of seeing their parents behind bars. The orange, pink and blue Muppet characters also remove any racial stigma from the issue for children.
Shlafer said the campaign will also provide helpful tips to parents and caregivers at home about how to talk honestly with their children about the issue.
"Caregivers actually will lie about where the incarcerated parent is," she said. "So grandma may say 'oh, mom's off at college' when actually she is at the Shakopee women's prison and will be for the next three years. One of the things that Sesame has done here is talk about (that) honesty is important in talking to your child about her parent's incarceration. It can be difficult, it can be scary, but here are some ways that you can approach this topic."
Children often suffer in many ways when a parent is incarcerated. The loss of family income often puts their families into poverty. Shlafer said there might be a link to recidivism, so it is important to help the children of incarcerated parents so they don't one day become criminals themselves.
Washington County Jail assistant administrator Roger Heinen said just entering a prison or jail can cause anxiety for young children, who have to put their belongings in lockers, then pass through metal detectors, then pass through metal doors only to see incarcerated parents through bulletproof glass. Heinen, whose own children watch Sesame Street, said it makes sense to use these lovable characters to help children deal with these hardships.