By Hannah Critchfield
In any other year, on Father’s Day, 11-year-old Marley Bennett and her grandmother would pack up their pre-made lunches and drive to Orange Correctional Center for a visit with Marley’s father.
They’d sit at the picnic tables outside, and she and her dad would chat about the news and school friends over barbecued ribs, potato salad, and collard greens.
But this Father’s Day was different. A phone call had to do, and Marley said she was grateful for it — it’s the only way she’s been able to communicate with her dad since March.
Marley, like the other 21,301 children with an incarcerated parent in North Carolina, has not seen her father in almost five months. The average age of these children is nine years old.
Correctional facilities throughout the state have shut down in-person visitations to help quell the spread of COVID-19, creating one more roadblock for kids trying to navigate the criminal justice system to stay connected with a parent.
Though some jails offer video visitation, most prisons in the state do not.
Advocates are nevertheless working on creative solutions to help children navigate the pandemic with, not without, their parents.
A spring without Parents Day
Many children already face barriers to maintaining a consistent relationship with a parent inside the justice system. Phone calls to jails and prisons often cost money, parents can be housed in facilities hours away from children who may lack access to transportation, and research shows visits with a parent behind facility plexiglass can be stressful for young children.
In a normal year, initiatives like “Parent Day” are designed to alleviate some of these barriers. It’s a coordinated effort between the prison or correctional facility and Our Children’s Place of Coastal Horizons a statewide program that focuses on creating better policies and practices for children with incarcerated parents.
Kids are given a full day of time with a parent inside the prison, usually conducted at a men’s facility. Fathers and their children who sign up gather together for unfiltered time in which they can play board games and cornhole, read books, create art, and catch up without the limits of a regular visit.
“We start at a certain time, we end at a certain time, we have lunch at a certain time, but otherwise, kids and dads can do what they want that whole time,” said Melissa Radcliff, executive director of Our Children’s Place of Coastal Horizons.
“Sometimes you have a child who bounces from thing to thing. Other times, especially with older kids, they’ll just go and sit in a corner and talk the whole time about what’s been going on in school, you know, if a child’s dating someone or they’ve been getting in trouble, you know, just some pretty intense conversations.”
Volunteers set up food, which is often donated from a local organization and cooked within the facility, for children and parents, and set up a breakfast and coffee station for caregivers waiting outside.
“We were concerned that if families had to travel, we didn’t want to say to the caregivers, ‘Okay, thanks for driving for three hours, now you’re on your own,’” said Radcliff. “We wanted to make sure they have a place to land during this time.”
Each Parent Day usually has one craft activity — this spring, they were going to paint birdhouses — but Radcliff said that it’s largely a hands-off day for kids and their parents to just be.
Research, from the University of Minnesota’s Department of Pediatrics, among others, shows that children with parents who are incarcerated are at an elevated risk for mental health problems, such as internalizing, suicidal ideations and self-injurious behaviors. In the past decade, powerful evidence about “adverse childhood experiences,” such as having an incarcerated parent, has shown that children experiencing these ACEs are at higher risk for mental, behavioral and physical health problems, even into middle age.
Girls and adolescents are particularly vulnerable. But strong parent-child relationships can buffer that risk.
Parent Day is intended to strengthen those connections.
Marley and her father DeCarlo have now participated in five Parent Days — at the last one in October, they carved pumpkins together while discussing Marley’s desire to run track, she said.
“It’s really fun, cause like, we would get to decorate cookies together and make faces in pumpkins,” said Marley. “Things like that.”
But the program has not happened this year — it was slated to take place at Orange Correctional Center in May, and again at Lincoln Correctional Center and Johnston Correctional Institution later in June.
Due to the worsening pandemic in the United States, the Department of Public Safety temporarily shut down all in-person visits on March 16.
Children like Marley now talk to their parents solely over the phone.
“I’m happy that I can talk to him still, and we do talk about a lot of stuff,” said Marley. “He likes to tell me about things that are happening in the world right now, and I tell him what’s going on with my friends. And if I need help with something, I’ll ask him about it.”
But not every kid can afford the costs of calls to a correctional facility, Radcliff pointed out, and the inability to physically see a parent’s face may heighten a child’s stress.
“I was on a call with a mom last week — she said now that her kids are done with school, they have a lot more time on their hands to wonder, worry, and think about what’s happening to their dad,” said Radcliff. ‘‘If the plan was that dad was gonna call at 3 pm this afternoon and he doesn’t, is that because he’s sick and needs to be quarantined? Or is it just because he couldn’t get to the phone at 3 pm because people are making more calls?
“And they have no way of checking that,” said Radcliff. “She said the fact that they can’t physically see him and check that way is really tough.”
Hopes for virtual communication
Radcliff said it’s possible a version of Parent Day may someday move online, particularly if COVID-19-related shutdowns persist.
As of May 1, the Department of Public Safety is piloting video visitation at several state prisons — Warren Correctional Institution, Central Prison, Tabor Correctional Institution, and Pender Correctional Institution — through Cisco Webex, a private video conferencing company, said John Bull, a departmental spokesman. The remaining 51 prisons do not yet offer video calling for families.
“My concern is that videos should supplement, not replace, in-person visits,” said Radcliff.
Many jails in the state already offer video visitation. It was a choice that often drew ire in the pre-pandemic era, as the implementation of such technology was frequently accompanied by the elimination of in-person visits. Places like Mecklenburg County and Wake County Detention centers now solely offer video visits for families, but Durham County Detention Facility, prior to COVID-19, allowed both in-person and video visits weekly.
Video visits, even outside of a pandemic, can offer children an opportunity to engage with parents without the stressors of correctional security procedures, research shows. But they also come with stressors of their own, including shorter visit times and abrupt endings to calls, leading experts to echo Radcliff’s sentiment — in best practice, correctional facilities should offer video calls as one option for engaging with family members, but not the only option.
In the meantime, Radcliff said their organization is reimagining Parent Day ahead of when prisons and jails re-open to visitors. She noted there’s a lot of “what ifs” remaining.
“We’re planning for in-person for the fall,” Radcliff said. “What does that mean in terms of space, like chairs six feet apart and family group sizes? Are people going to have to wear masks, and do temperature checks? All the stuff that’s happening as we reopen other places — what is that gonna look like in the prisons and jails?
“From a family’s perspective, it’ll definitely look different after this,” she said.
For now, kids like Marley wait.
“It’s kind of frustrating, because I do want to see my dad, and do all the fun stuff that we did before,” she said. “My dad is a very good person, he’s nice and good to talk to. But I still wish that I could come over to talk to him.
“I wish that COVID-19 would just be over, cause I do want to spend time with him. But I can’t.”