ASU center creates resource for kids affected by incarceration

By

Mary Beth Faller

When people are incarcerated, their families also suffer, surrounded by shame and stigma. Especially little kids.

Sometimes, children will make up stories to explain why their parent isn’t around.

The Center for Child Well-Being at Arizona State University has been holding summits on the topic of incarceration over the past few years, with experts and advocates sharing best practices to help these families.

“Families were reaching out to educators for help with, ‘How do we explain this to the kids? How do we explain where their parents are? We don’t know what language to use,’” said Judy Krysik, director of the center and an associate professor in the School of Social Work.

“If the kids are telling stories, it’s something bad to be ashamed of. There is so much stigma.”

The center heard from teachers too.

“Teachers were saying that grandparents were asking them to be the ones to tell the kids that their parents were incarcerated, or that their parents were on vacation for a year. Things that didn’t make sense,” she said.

So the center has created a resource for families and teachers around the state, and they've gotten some help from a well-known Sun Devil to promote it.

“Even parents make mistakes” is the catchphrase used on posters in libraries around Arizona that accompany displays of children’s books about incarceration. The posters feature Zylan Cheatham, who played for the Sun Devil basketball team in 2018–19 and is now on the New Orleans Pelicans in the NBA.

Cheatham was interested in helping to promote the campaign because when he was growing up in south Phoenix, his father was incarcerated.

Poster for a book campaign for kids whose parents are incarcerated

Former Sun Devil basketball star Zylan Cheatham, now a player with the New Orleans Pelicans of the NBA, is promoting the children's book initiative with this poster. His life was impacted by incarceration.

Melinda Borucki, communications and events manager with the Center for Child Well-Being, spent months last year poring through children’s book catalogs and online sites to find books in which the main character is a child affected by incarceration. She found 45 books, ranging from toddler to young adult, for the collection.

“I approached all the libraries in Arizona last summer, and said, ‘All we want you to do is put out a display of the books. I can give you the posters,’” Borucki said.

But many libraries, especially in rural areas, told her that they didn’t have the funds to purchase the books.

“We started raising funds slowly, piecemeal from donors,” she said. “And then we had a very generous benefactor, the Hickey Foundation, and they gave us a grant to purchase books for 13 libraries that needed them.”

The center purchased the books from Changing Hands, an independently owned bookstore with locations in Tempe and Phoenix.

Borucki hasn’t been able to deliver the books yet because of the pandemic, which also suspended the center’s spring summit on incarceration, when the promotional campaign featuring Cheatham was supposed to debut.

The collection of 45 books likely doesn’t include all titles that are about young people dealing with incarceration, Borucki said.

“The list is a work in progress. Hopefully we’ll continue to build and expand it,” she said.

The books include a range of scenarios, including foster children who have parents who are incarcerated, Black and Native American families and one book that was written by a group of teenagers.

“We want to expand to school libraries, community centers and anywhere there’s a child who is impacted by incarceration,” Borucki said. “The goal is to get all of the state of Arizona covered.”

About 2 million children are affected by incarceration right now across the country, with 5 million having dealt with it at some point in their lives, Krysik said.

“Some people are in and out, and some children have a parent who will be in prison for the rest of their lives,” she said.

The message of “Even parents make mistakes” will itself reduce stigma, Krysik said.

“This is not just for children who are affected by incarceration, but also for those who aren’t, so that hopefully they will gain empathy when they encounter another child who is,” she said.

The ASU Foundation has set up a link to donate to the Empathy Through Literacy Project.

Top photo courtesy of Pixabay