Tiffany Lambert tries to remain a mom to her three children from within the Shakopee state women’s prison — reading the accented voices of SkippyJon Jones over the phone to her 7-year-old daughter and encouraging her 12-year-old to stick with his homework.
But it’s not the same. Her 18-year-old daughter just graduated high school without her. Her son doesn’t tell people where his mother is. Her youngest daughter just wants her home.
“I don’t feel like their mom anymore,” she said. “I mean, I know I’m their mom, but I know they are getting support from somewhere else and that’s a hard thing for me.”
The incarceration of parents has all kinds of effects on children, especially preschoolers and grade schoolers whose emotions can vary from anger to anxiety to guilt that they are somehow to blame. Some experts link the forced detachment to an increased likelihood that the children will end up in prison themselves.
The little-discussed problem gained national attention Wednesday when a campaign by the creators of “Sesame Street” was announced at the White House to help children of incarcerated parents cope and to teach adults in and out of prison how to talk with children about these issues.
The “Sesame Street” campaign, titled “Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration,” is targeted to children in preschool and grade school.
Tips from the campaign include honest discussion about parents’ incarcerations so that children don’t construct reasons for the absence of parents or assume the parents left because of them. The campaign also describes prison as a place where adults go when they break rules, rather than a place for bad people — which is what children might hear from friends or see in movies.
It’s a campaign with a local tie, as the Washington County jail will be an early test site and a University of Minnesota researcher will be studying it to see if the program actually helps children and families. The university’s Rebecca Shlafer will compare children who view a “Sesame Street” video and other age-appropriate information before seeing their parents in the Washington County jail with children who don’t.
Shlafer hopes the materials will help these children feel like they are not alone and encourage their caretakers to talk honestly with them about the incarceration of one of their parents.
“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.”
An estimated 2.7 million children have parents in state or federal prisons in the United States, an 80 percent increase from two decades ago. Exact Minnesota data is limited. As of Jan. 1, about 5,640 inmates in state prisons had children (about 60 percent of the total population), but that includes adult children. A recent study estimated that 7 percent of Minnesota adults grew up with someone in their household who was incarcerated.
Minnesota has a lower incarceration rate than the rest of the nation, but a preliminary survey at the St. Cloud prison indicated that the state’s inmate population might have a higher rate of children — making this a particularly relevant topic for the state, Shlafer said.
Lambert was convicted of making fraudulent financial transactions and entered the Shakopee prison 19 months ago. Each child has reacted differently, but she suspects her 12-year-old son is struggling the most. He doesn’t tell other parents or teachers that his mom is in prison.
“It must be hard for him when they ask ‘Where is your mom?’ ” she said. “He doesn’t talk much about it, but I know he’s very embarrassed by it.”
Her mothering from prison has limits, because she can’t monitor her concerns about his homework.
“He kind of sloughs it off and then I don’t really have a good followup for it,” she said. “I can’t search his folder.”
Washington Co. on board
The “Sesame Street” campaign appealed to Roger Heinen, assistant administrator of the Washington County Jail, whose own children watch “Sesame Street.” The colorful characters probably make it easier for children to receive information on such complicated topics.
“It does make a lot of sense,” he said. “They are using ‘Sesame Street’ for a lot of different things like divorce — a lot of social issues that are very difficult to talk to kids about.”
While his jail will make early use of the “Sesame Street” video and materials, other detention facilities in Minnesota will add them gradually.
Just entering the jail for the first time can be intimidating for children — who have to leave belongings in a locker, then walk through a metal detector and several heavy security doors, and then can only see their parents through bulletproof glass and talk to them through a telephone receiver.
“It’s a harsh reality when they first go there,” Heinen said. “It’s all the same whether it’s a child or a 17-year-old or an 85-year-old adult.”
Lambert remembers the first visit from her children — her youngest daughter was allowed to sit on her lap but her older children were frustrated that they weren’t allowed to reach out and touch her.
She later entered a parenting program at the prison by which her kids can visit her for four hours on Saturdays and she hopes to enter a diversion program that expedites her release.
She knows it won’t be the same back home, either. The father of her children is in a new relationship, and she knows she’ll likely have to live on her own with only visits from the children.
Until that time, Lambert tries to keep her relationship with the children meaningful.
“I mail little postcards, I mail letters. I really try to stay connected in their lives,” she said. “Sometimes it hurts when I call and don’t get an answer, but at least they know that I called.”