For Scores Of U.S. Children, One Parent Lives Behind Bars
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, my Can I Just Tell you commentary is just ahead. But first, it's time to go Behind Closed Doors. That's the part of the program where we talk about things that people often find difficult to talk about, often because of stigma or shame.
Today, we are returning to the subject of parents who are behind bars. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 1.7 million children in the U.S. have at least one parent who is incarcerated. Previously on this program, we've talked with parents who've been incarcerated about the difficulty of being an effective parent while behind bars.
Now we want to hear about a program to support the children of parents while they're incarcerated. It's called the Service Network for Children of Inmates. It's based in Miami-Dade County, Florida, and it helps organize prison visits for kids with their parents, as well as other services.
Joining us to talk about this is Shellie Solomon, chief executive officer of Justice and Security Strategies. That's one of the organizations that participates in the program.
Also with us are Bryanna and Bryttany Tolliver. They are 14-year-old twin sisters who participate in the program while their mother, Natia Johnson(ph) has been in prison. She's been incarcerated since May of 2006 and remains incarcerated. The girls are being raised by their grandmother and legal guardian, Kim Kerr, and she joins us also.
Now, we're familiar with the case file of Natea Johnson, but we've been asked not to discuss the particulars in front of her daughters, and welcome to all of you ladies, and happy holidays to you.
Ms. SHELLIE SOLOMON (Chief Executive Officer, Justice and Security Strategies): (Unintelligible).
Ms. BRYTTANY TOLIVER: Happy holidays to you, too.
Ms. BRYANNA TOLIVER: (Unintelligible).
Ms. KIM KERR: (Unintelligible).
MARTIN: Shellie, if you would start, tell us about the program. Who gets to participate, and why do you feel a program like this is important?
Ms. SOLOMON: We reach out to all children who have a parent in prison or jail, and the way we find them is we have a relationship with the Miami-Dade Jail and the Florida Department of Corrections, where we actually go into the facilities and talk to the inmates, and they refer their children, and then we have social workers and faith-based groups that go out into a community, find the caregivers and the children and offer them services.
MARTIN: And what kinds of services do you offer? What do you do, basically?
Ms. SOLOMON: After we get the referral from the inmate, the way we - and then we find the children in the community. If we find that the children - oftentimes, we find they're in crisis. They need food; they need clothing. So we will work to find available resources in the community that can help them and can reconnect them to the community.
We may connect them to after-school programs. Or if they are having mental health issues, we will find a counselor that can help talk through those issues.
So that's one side of it. The other side is for those children in families that want to visit their parent in prison, we do offer quarterly visits to six Florida state facilities and the Miami-Dade jails.
MARTIN: Kim Kerr, may I ask you: How has the program worked with the girls? I'm going - ladies, I am going to get your take on this. I don't want you to think I'm leaving you out, but I wanted to ask your grandma for her perspective on this and what difference does the program make.
Ms. KERR: We were able to get a chance to see my daughter and their mother. We were kind of distant. We hadn't seen her, and we didn't have a chance to go and visit. And with the Children of Inmates, we get a chance to be with her, bond, and the kids are able to bond. And the program has helped us mentally because we were having problems with one of the daughters that was angry. So - and Children of Inmates has helped us, and they're beginning to bond now.
MARTIN: And if I may ask, how come you hadn't been to visit? Is it just the distance? Is it just too hard to arrange, or why hadn't you gone to see her?
Ms. KERR: We hadn't gone to see her because of transportation problems. I'm a single parent, grandparent, rather, and we didn't really have good transportation. So with Children of Inmates, we get a chance to see her quarterly.
MARTIN: And you were saying that one of the girls was angry. What about you? Were you angry?
Ms. KERR: I was hurt because of not being able to see her and the situation of where she is now, you know, in prison. So it truly helped me also to be able to go, and now I can hug her, and I can forgive her for what she did because I was holding a grudge.
MARTIN: I was going to say, I bet partly what you were angry about is that she got herself in that situation. Am I right about that?
Ms. KERR: Yes. Yes. That's true.
MARTIN: Well, Bryttany, you're the older so I'm going to go to you, because you're the senior diva. Has it made a difference for you being able to see her?
Ms. BRYTTANY TOLLIVER: Yes. For me to be closer to my mom and to talk to her about any problems that I have.
MARTIN: Bryanna, what about you? Has it made a difference for you being able to see her?
Ms. BRYANNA TOLLIVER: Yes. Helped me to focus in school and then just know that my mom is okay because she keep her head up and she know what she's coming for and coming back for us when she comes out, and how it helped our family, happy and to see her and stuff like that.
MARTIN: You were worried about her.
Ms. BRYANNA TOLLIVER: Yes.
MARTIN: That was part of what was bothering you.
Ms. BRYANNA TOLLIVER: Yes.
MARTIN: Shellie, what about that? Do you hear that that a lot of times the kids are worried about their parents?
Ms. SOLOMON: Oh, absolutely. We had a child that's much younger than Bryttany and Bryanna, six, in fact, who packed up her bag and went to the bus station and was going to go see her mom who was three hours away because she was very worried about her and, you know, we had to go find her. So a lot of our children worry very much about their parents. The last time they saw them might have been a very traumatic experience.
MARTIN: What do you mean?
Ms. SOLOMON: At the point of arrest and then they don't see them again and they don't know what happened, and so this helps ease their fears about what might have happened and that their parent is okay and safe.
MARTIN: Bryttany, I'm going to ask you this and it's kind of a hard question. Did you ever feel like you didn't get to see your mom because she didn't care about you?
Ms. BRYTTANY TOLLIVER: No.
MARTIN: You never felt that way? Have any other kids ever made fun of you because your mom is in jail - is in prison?
Ms. BRYTTANY TOLLIVER: Sometimes.
MARTIN: What do they say?
Ms. BRYTTANY TOLLIVER: I forget what they say, but sometimes I don't pay attention to it.
MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Bryanna, what about you? Has that ever happened to you?
Ms. BRYANNA TOLLIVER: No. I never really - I don't tell, like, kids where my mom is. I don't tell people about like family problems, not unless it's somebody really trying to help us get involve in into something that is really needed for our mom and for us to just calm down and talk about her not being locked up and stuff like that.
MARTIN: I hear what you're saying.
If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about a new program that helps to support the children of incarcerated parents. It's called the Service Network for Children of Inmates. It's based in Miami, Florida and we're speaking with twin sisters Bryanna and Bryttany Tolliver who participate in the program. We're talking with their grandmother Kim Kerr who is their legal guardian. Her daughter, Natia, is incarcerated currently. And we're also speaking with Shellie Solomon. She's the chief executive officer of Justice and Securities Strategies, that's one of the organizations involved in the service network.
Shellie, what feedback are you getting about the program?
Ms. SOLOMON: Well, the feedback we're getting is very positive. I mean one of the jokes I say is we have a waiting list of kids and we have a waiting list of wardens. I think from the kids what we're seeing is we have a very high return rate of the kids wanting to go and visit their parents or wanting to participate in our support groups, that they finally have a sense of community and begin to understand that we're not holding them responsible for what their parent did.
MARTIN: And that leads to my question now, Shellie, and it is a difficult question and regret that I have to ask it in front of the girls, but there are those who would say that that is part of the punishment is that you don't get to see your kids. That's part of what being in prison is and that people should think about that before they do the kinds of things that would get them locked up. And to those who would have that perspective, what would you say?
Ms. SOLOMON: A couple of things, one is that, you know, we look at it from the eyes of the child and the child has a right to see their parent. And that right should not be denied to them because they did not do anything to cause this. And we made a choice as a society and - I mean I don't judge that choice either way because I work a lot with police - but to separate this family, but the child still has to grow up. And we know that children of inmates are three times more likely to have antisocial behaviors, they're twice as likely to have mental health issues.
Statistically, they're more likely to end up in prison than their peers. And as a society, I think we have to step up the plate in recognizing that incarceration rates have increased dramatically over the last 30 years. You know, that means if we keep on this cycle, we're going to have more people in future incarcerated. We have to stop that and we have to help these kids in every way we can.
MARTIN: I don't know when Natia is going to be released or is expected to be released. But can I ask you, having the girls be able to have a relationship with her or improve their relationship with her, do you think it'll make it easier for her when she comes out to kind of get herself back on her feet, get herself back in society as it were? Ms. Kerr, what do you think?
Ms. KERR: Yes, I do. I think it's going to help because on the last visit we had, I seen a big, big difference, especially Bryttany because at one time Bryttany was withdrawn and she was having issues because she wasn't with her mom. But on the last visit that we had a week ago, I saw her and her mom talk, hug, smile and they were happy. So I see this helping my family and my girls.
MARTIN: What about Natia, your daughter, how do you think it's affecting her?
Ms. KERR: She - I spoke with her the day after we visit and she said, mom, I really thank God for the program. And she said that I really feel closer to my kids now. She asked me, please to make sure whatever I do that they'd be able to see her on every visit that Children of Inmates, you know, have the visits, and I promised her that I would.
MARTIN: And can I ask the ladies though - Bryttany and Bryanna - has your mom ever talked to you about staying out of trouble?
Ms. BRYANNA TOLLIVER: Well, she's been telling us about how she grew up and how she was really out of order and stuff and she tell us to just keep our heads up, to stay out of trouble in doing bad stuff. Don't let other people lead us to doing bad things in the world, and especially just follow our dreams and hope that we get there and she'll be home very soon to come and help us with our problems and stuff.
MARTIN: I see what your - Shellie, that is a question that I was asking is that there are those who would say that children should not be exposed to the prison environment. Do you have some thoughts about that?
Ms. SOLOMON: Children love their parents. This is one of the main issues they struggle with in terms of being able to move forward in their lives. But the little kids want to know that their parents love them, that they didn't do anything to make their parents go away.
I've had a little boy ask a 15-year-old when they went to leave he goes, do you think our mommies love us? And she was able to explain to him, yeah, I think they do. They just they're in a long time out and, but we'll be okay. And I think it was good for both of them. We try to make it a very positive experience so that we start to erase the painful moments and put in some positive moments that they can have with their parents growing up.
MARTIN: And Bryanna and Bryttany, is there anything else you want to tell me about like, I don't know, what do you think you want to be when you grow up? Or Bryttany, I'll ask you first because I said you're the senior diva by eight minutes.
Ms. BRYTTANY TOLLIVER: When I grow up I want to be a forensic scientist or a fashion designer.
MARTIN: Wow, that's exciting. Bryanna, what about you?
Ms. BRYANNA TOLLIVER: Me and my sister, we both want to be in forensic science and I hope things doesn't go wrong about going in college and stuff about stuff going wrong with the forensic science. I want to be either a basketball player or an ice skater.
MARTIN: Okay, well that sounds great. So we've got a couple of choices to choose from. Good luck with all of those.
Well, you heard it here; Bryanna and Bryttany Tolliver, aspiring fashion designer, forensic scientist, ice skater, basketball player participate in the Service Network for Children of Inmates. We were also pleased to be joined by Kim Kerr. She is their grandmother and legal guardian. And Shellie Solomon, she's the chief executive officer of Justice and Securities Strategies. That's one of the organizations involved in the Service Network for Children of Inmates, and they all joined us from WLRN in Miami, Florida.
I thank you all so much for speaking with us ladies, and Happy Holidays to you.
Ms. BRYTTANY TOLLIVER: Happy Holidays to you too.
Ms. BRYANNA TOLLIVER: Happy Holidays to you too.
Ms. KERR: Thank you for having us.
Ms. SOLOMON: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.