WebExtra: Two steps forward, one back

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About this project

About this project

By the time Twin Green left Cook County Jail on Sept. 2, she had obtained contact information for the children of more than 60 inmates and furlough participants — the first step toward enrolling them in a new mentoring program at the south suburban Link & Option Center.

With new streams of federal funding, mentoring programs like the one Link & Option offers to children of the incarcerated are expanding their reach. 

But in testimony at a Sept. 18 hearing conducted by the Illinois House Youth and Family Committee, advocates said that many other services for such children are struggling to stay afloat — and that more policy changes are needed. 

While Green had good news on mentoring, another effort she is involved in has stalled. Legislators at the hearing heard horror stories about police who, after arresting a parent, left the children to fend for themselves.

Several years ago, the Illinois Task Force for Children of Prisoners, Children of Promise held a statewide meeting to discuss police procedures.  But a lack of money has prevented the task force from conducting training, says Green, who chairs the group.

Catalyst, which first reported on children of the incarcerated two years ago, recently touched base with initiatives that were then emerging to see how they are faring in these tight economic times. Here is what we found: 

Cook County Jail mother-child visiting room

The advocacy group CLAIM, for Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers, began lobbying for a mother-child visiting room at Cook County Jail in 1985. It met with the Cook County Sheriff’s Office as early as 1991. It finally achieved its objective in 2008, after Bright Horizons Foundation for Children donated a $15,000 “Bright Space” room for the jail.

The visitation program is open to detainees who enroll in the jail’s 160-bed, voluntary drug and mental health treatment center and attend parenting classes. By Aug. 14, only 132 visits had taken place, according to data supplied by the Department of Women’s Justice Services, which runs the program. An additional 84 women had enrolled in the required parenting classes, but were not able to visit their children. 

Even so, the room is providing Green with a new avenue to reach more families directly,   including caregivers of the children, who will be offered a monthly support group as part of the Link & Option Center program. 

“We stress making sure that the family stays connected,” Green says. Once the mothers are moved to state prisons, Link & Option Center mentors will take children on regular visits. 

Still, keeping families together would be easier if drug offenders were handled differently by the legal system. “The single most important thing we can do is to provide community-based [drug] treatment programs in place of [prison] sentences,” said Gail Smith, executive director of CLAIM. “Laws in Illinois permit this, and we have failed to provide the funding. This is penny-wise and pound-foolish.”

Lawndale Amachi Mentoring Program (LAMP)

Former Herzl Elementary Principal Betty Allen-Green launched this program a year ago to provide mentors to children whose parents are in jail. It currently serves about 90 children, but about 50 boys are on a waiting list because it has been difficult to recruit male mentors, she says.

That may change soon. Allen-Green just received word that LAMP will be able to hire a recruiter and a case manager with $363,000 in federal funds it will receive through the national Amachi organization. She also hopes to hire a second recruiter, if she gets the three-year, $400,000 grant she has applied for from Mentoring Children of Prisoners funds in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Chicago Public Schools social work training

Mentoring programs were among the resources highlighted by Ann Adalist-Estrin in a half-day workshop she conducted for 375 Chicago Public Schools social workers and social work interns in March. 

She also urged social workers to honor the continuing role played by a child’s incarcerated parent. 

“Often, children get either dead silence (from adults) or a lecture that they don’t have to follow in their parents’ footsteps,” Adalist-Estrin says. “Where in that silence or in that lecture is there room to say, ‘I miss my parent?’ ”  

Hammond Elementary School social worker Louis Ingratta said the workshop put information at his fingertips and that he will share what he learned with others in his school. But he added that it would be helpful if the district created some structure.  

“It was enough to get everybody’s feet wet with the subject matter,” he said, “but maybe they could have an option for people to go further — to be a point person if questions [arise].” 

CPS is the third district in the nation to offer children of the incarcerated training, says Adalist-Estrin, who directs the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated. 

Schools, she says, should use a strategy of “universal outreach” to serve children of the incarcerated — for example, offering resources through posters and newsletter items — “so families see the district is serious about wanting to provide services.” 

CPS doesn’t have plans to offer additional training on the topic this year, says Adrienne Curry, the district’s director of clinical services.

“If we had an influx of new staff, we’d want to get them trained,” she says. 


Sponsored by Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, this program has seen gradual changes in the past several years due to dwindling funds, says Valerie Everett, who runs the program. Two and a half years ago, it stopped helping children visit their incarcerated fathers.

More recently, the program lost a re-entry counselor position. But, Everett says, the program was able to refocus on family-centered services — including re-entry plans for incarcerated mothers and “Saturday Surprises” programs that help children bond with caregivers.

Many families in the program received counseling services from Community Counseling Centers of Chicago. For about a month over the summer, state funding cuts forced the centers to stop serving about 1,000 clients who were not covered by Medicaid or other insurance. 

The organization’s funding was restored in August, says the organization’s assistant director of development, Marcy Darin. But getting clients to come back has been a challenge, especially since some have no phone or Internet access.

Caregiver support 

Caregiver families themselves are being hit hard, says Everett of Connections. More are asking for help with utilities, rent, and clothing.

Few are getting financial assistance from the state, says Allen-Green of LAMP. “Many are living in poverty from the start, and then take on the responsibility of raising one, or two, or even three children,” she says.

Nearly all of the caregivers are eligible for grants under the federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, says Jim Gleeson, an associate professor at the Jane Addams College of Social Work, who studies kinship care. But many don’t know it.

Sometimes, Department of Human Services workers mistakenly tell them they have to be legal guardians, Gleeson says. “Sometimes they are just afraid to go. … They worry somebody will take the kids away.”

Grandparent caregivers typically have a lower level of education and higher poverty than foster families, says Rosa Cho, an assistant professor of education at Brown University.  Research she completed this June found that after a mother is incarcerated, children who end up in foster care or with their fathers do better in school than those placed in the legal guardianship of their grandparents or mothers. 

But at-risk caregiver families may get more help soon. A bill signed into state law in early August — House Bill 2365 — created a statewide “kinship navigator” program to funnel more resources to relative caregivers. The program will coordinate support groups, counseling and respite care, and help caregivers apply for public aid.

It remains to be seen whether the hearings held Sept. 18 will lead to more policies that specifically address the needs of children of the incarcerated. But Adalist-Estrin says that any legislative attention to the issue is encouraging. 

“This is catching on, and Illinois is at the front of it,” she says. “That’s a really great thing.”

Rebecca Harris is a Chicago-based freelance writer.