Hour Children x KidsMates
By Ava Martoma, Age 16
Happy belated Children’s Day from everyone at KidsMates. Yes, “Children’s Day” is a real holiday, and our gift is summertime. Summer holidays are very exciting since we’re still students. As the Fresh Prince says in Summertime, “time to sit back and unwind.” Today “the groove slightly transformed” is from our recent interview with Dr. Alethea Taylor at Hour Children. Hour Children’s mission is to “help incarcerated women and their children successfully rejoin the community, reunify with their families, and build healthy, independent, and secure lives.” The program was founded in 1986 by Sister Tesa Fitzgerald in Queens, New York. Sister Fitzgerald ran the program for 30 years before passing the baton on to Dr. Taylor, who previously served as a distinguished doctoral lecturer at Hunter College School of Education and as the executive director of Greenhope Services for Women.
We felt it was a great time to catch up with Hour Children to learn what’s what under Dr. Taylor’s leadership. As Dr. Taylor noted when joining Hour Children, “The mission has not changed, the commitment has not changed, but we still have much work to do.” I’m sure we all have many questions.
Throughout our interview, I will explore Dr. Taylor’s personal journey and how it connected her to Hour Children, the programs and services offered post-COVID-19, and finally, any tips Dr. Taylor can share about overcoming the adversity of parental incarceration. If you have questions, please email them to email@example.com. Let’s get started.
Ava: Tell us a little about your story related to the criminal justice system and your work with children of incarcerated parents.
Alethea: You know, this work is so important. One of the reasons is so important because I had a family member that was incarcerated. My brother was incarcerated for 19 years, and 17 of those years I went back and forth to prison to visit him. I was the only family member who had a car, and he was not in spaces that were very accessible.
There were times when people came from various areas outside of New York City when they wanted to see him. I was a designated driver, so I love what Hour Children does because they make sure that the family stays connected to the woman. We do family visiting with them. What that means is we go, we pick up the child, or we pick up the grandparent and the child, and we ensure that they are connected to that family member.
I was always a person making sure that my brother was connected to his mother, sisters, and so forth because it was so difficult. Hour Children does the same thing.
We have host families that are in the Westchester community. If a child has to come from, let's say, Detroit, we will help the child get here. We'll pick the child up and put them in a host family and have the host family host them for a weekend. That's part of our summer program that I'll talk about a little bit later.
That's why this [program] relates so much to me because I was connected to the criminal justice system in this way, and it’s the type of work that I've done since I was 21. Working with women who were formerly incarcerated was my first internship, and I fell in love. These are all the reasons why I'm still doing this work today. I have found purpose in helping women who are formerly incarcerated and currently incarcerated as a part of my life's journey.
Ava: Awesome, that sounds fantastic how you've translated your personal experiences and how closely that correlates to what you're doing now with Hour Children.
Let's talk more about your work at Hour Children. What is the most important thing you've done in the last year to help children and families facing incarceration?
Alethea: Well, reopening our summer programs was very exciting because COVID took a lot away from us.
When I came on in 2022, we had small programming around the summer, but I was able to work with staff to really reopen those prison programs in 2022.
What that means is there are women who haven't seen their kids and kids who haven't seen their mothers in 18 months, for almost three years. What we were able to do is have a program in the summer where the children come down for a week and be with their mom for an entire week. They stay with host families and go be with mom in the visiting areas where we have lots of activities and then go home to the host family who's hosting them.
One of the things that many kids haven't said to their parents in almost 18 months is, "I will see you tomorrow” because they don't get to see them tomorrow often. That week is so important to us.
It was so exciting. We reunited 40 women and 40 children in our Long Island City program and prison program. We were very excited about that. In the Long Island City programs, we were able to do a summer camp, and we were able to offer scholarships for those kids. They go on outings. They do work. They do math work and all these other activities to keep them strong in the summer.
They also go to the park, the museum, and do art. So we're very excited about the fact that we were able to do that, and we're continuing it for 2023.
Ava: That sounds awesome. I'm sure that's an experience that all these kids will remember 10 to 20 years later. They'll think back to the summers and how big of an opportunity it was to have that contact with their parents.
Alethea: Can I say one more thing?
Ava: Sure. Go ahead.
Alethea: The other thing that's exciting is that we were able to get funding this year for a child therapist. We have a therapist that deals with children and parents, but we never had a therapist that was only for the kids. Some teenagers say, "I don't want to see my mom's therapist," because it feels like you're going to tell everything, which we don't, but we wanted the therapy to be authentic for that child. We were able to get funding from Robin Hood Foundation to get a child therapist. That's something else that has been very exciting for the organization.
Ava: Yes, I think therapy is one thing that’s not often thought about, but it makes a big difference in being able to say what you want and having somebody who will listen to you.
What other things do people need help understanding about your work or project that you want them to know?
Alethea: The big one is that visiting your parents during incarceration is so important to continue the family bond. That is one of the big things why we do what we do. Parents are parenting from behind bars, and mothers are still mothers when they're behind bars, and they still have to mother their children. We help children and parents maintain that connection, so it's advocacy.
For example, let’s say that the child is going to do an IEP, an individual education plan, in school. We ask that the mother be involved in that process and that the mother understands what's going on by advocating that she gets access to the child's record and access to the teacher. We'll actually make phone calls, so if it's going to be an hour on a call for the IEP meeting, we will sit there and guide the mother through that process.
We also have the mother do homework at night with the kids. If we're on-site, we do it, but we encourage them to make their own phone calls. We teach them how to ask questions about the tests that they've gotten a week before. Even if they don't understand the subject matter, it’s about asking the child how they felt about the test, what did the test mean to them, and how is this going to help them towards the future? We work with these women to engage them. We're doing this with them, but we also have people that are incarcerated who work for us inside the prison, and they are also helping other women.
I don't think people really understand the importance of rehabilitation and what's happening inside the bars. The woman who goes into prison is not the same person that comes out. I think there's a misconception because what you see on the news is people who were parole, then get in trouble. We don't see the people who are doing good, who are running organizations who are working as counselors, directors, police officers, and even working in the criminal justice system as well.
We don't see those people when they were inside, whether it's on Rikers Island or they were inside a prison, that then made a commitment to change their lives, or just did something to better themselves. What happens 10 years later is that there is a different person that came out.
I think people forget that once you go to prison the stereotype stays on you that makes you feel as if you are your crime. I really would love for people to not think that way. Think about the people that have gotten rehabilitation and are trying to do something different with their lives. They are a different person when they come out.
Ava: Yeah, that's really important because incarcerated people are people too. People change and grow over time. As easy as it is to look at the bad cases or the things that make the news, there are always two sides to any argument. We have to make sure that we're looking at both sides, seeing the good that people are doing and seeing the hard work because they made a conscious decision and effort to put themselves out there and try hard, and I think we should congratulate and applaud them for that.
Alethea: I agree.
Ava: What do you want the world to know about children or families dealing with incarceration?
Alethea: That language matters. We are labeling people when they come home, calling them criminals instead of someone that's formerly incarcerated. Also, that rehabilitation of people who are in this criminal legal system is so important because we cannot just send people away and not give them education.
I love that there's college behind bars, and that some of our women are attending college courses. They're attending college courses because when they come out they have to live a different life. That's something that they need to do.
Also, I don't think people understand the challenges for someone who comes home from prison. If you've done 30 years, and you went in when there was a token (and I'm not sure if you remember or know what tokens are but there were tokens that you use for the bus and the subway), and now you come home, and you have a metro card that you have to use (and now we're even getting away from that) because we're looking at using our credit cards. That is a difficult thing for someone to navigate when they first come home. Cell phones were huge and clunky when they went in, and now they're just this flat thing. It’s these kinds of things that are really difficult to navigate.
What they thought that Bedford–Stuyvesant looked like before they left does not look the same way when they came out, so they can't even navigate from their memories. Remember, we're navigating from our memories all the time. They don't have that anymore. Those are the types of issues that people face when they come home. That's why they need programs like us.
That’s why they also need the world to be just a little bit more understanding of what the issues are when people come home and why they need a little bit more grace from family members, friends, and society at large. We also need to ensure that language matters because people should not be their crime.
I should not be an ex-offender. I was someone who was formerly incarcerated. Now I am not that person anymore. I'm this person.
Ava: Definitely. When it comes to being incarcerated and having an incarcerated parent, I think one of the most important things people don't consider is "person first language."
"I was not an incarcerated person." "I was not an inmate." "I was a person who was incarcerated."
Our president, Dr. Martoma, has an article on this topic looking at how language impacts your mindset. A lot of the struggle surrounding being a child of an incarcerated parent is that there's a cloud of shame and stigma associated with having an incarcerated parent or relative. Making it more humane when talking about incarcerated people and recognizing that they are people too goes a long way.
Ava: Do you have any tips for children who are currently coping with adversity, whether that's having an incarcerated parent or something else?
I think the number one thing is something that you said that I've thought about as well: there is no shame. How do you help a child not be shameful because mom and dad is incarcerated. I think it’s that you didn't get your parents incarcerated. You're not the reason they're incarcerated. You become your own person and connecting with your parents is one of the greatest things that can happen for you and for that relationship.
Another thing that I would say to a young person would be communicate your needs and feelings to someone you trust because what's happening, that they may not understand yet, is that there's trauma that's occurring because it's not normal for you to have a parent that's incarcerated. That is not a normal thing. But let’s not to make it so it's something abnormal. If you can find someone that you could communicate and trust and help to build a relationship with so that you can talk to about the things that are happening.
You could even talk about what happens when you go on the visit. I was 20 when I started going to see my brother consistently, and I didn't tell a lot of people. I didn't realize until later that it was shame. I wish somebody had said to me that there's nothing wrong with what you're doing. You're going and you're visiting your brother. He may be in there longer. If you were going to the hospital, you wouldn't be shamed about going to see someone in the hospital.
We look at it differently because maybe a person didn't put themselves in the hospital, but not everybody in prison is guilty.
Those are the kinds of things that I would say to a child.
Also, something as simple as “this too shall pass” and “it will be okay.” What you're doing is making sure that you're doing the things that are healthy and having someone that loves you help you figure out the adversity and to talk, talk, talk.
I think other issues that come up is that we're not talking about how we're feeling about mom and dad being incarcerated, or about my grandparents or my aunts raising me, and how I'm not feeling like I'm a part of the family because I don't necessarily have my own family in the way that I would like to, and not sharing those things.
Whether it's a guidance counselor, or social worker, or it's a family member that's taking care of you, I would encourage them to have those open-candid conversations which are not easy all the time.
Ava: One thing you said there that stuck out to me was, "This too shall pass." I think that's such an important thing. It's like anything else. On a much smaller scale; for example, say you do poorly on a math test, and it feels like it's the end of the world...
Ava: In a week, you won't even remember it. Having an incarcerated parent is not the same as that, but it'll be an experience you went through, and it doesn't have to be a bad experience. It can be something you've learned and grown from that has shaped the way you are, but it doesn't have to define you.
Alethea: Yes, your parent’s incarceration does not define you, and my brother’s incarceration didn't define me. I didn't say this earlier, but my dad was also incarcerated. This was when I was much younger, and that did not define who I was and what I did.
Now it could have influence, so for young people it could influence the decisions that they make, but it doesn't have to define you, or your makeup, and everything about you. I think that's the difference. People say, you know, his father was incarcerated, mother was incarcerated, so it's inevitable that he's gonna be incarcerated, but that's not true.
Those things influence them, but it doesn't have to definitely define their future.
Ava: At the end of the day, we all have choices that we can make and things that are in our control and things that are not in our control. Having an incarcerated parent is not something that's in our control. If it's going to happen, we don't get to decide, but we can take control of the things that we have the power to do something about, and that's what makes us who we are and defines who we are as people.
Ava: So who or what has influenced your thoughts on incarceration the most?
Alethea: Dr. Anne Elliot. Dr. Ann Elliot was the executive director of Greenhope Services for Women, where I first started my journey in incarceration. It’s actually Reverend Dr. Anne Elliot. I remember she was going through seminary when I first came. It was first time that I saw a woman of color who was just adamant about women and change and why incarceration is not who you are and that your story is an important one and that you have to treat women well, indicating that we need to guide women to their choice and voice because many of them may not have had a choice.
You don't make a choice to be molested, you don't make a choice to go into prostitution. Many of our women didn't have a choice, and some of that led them to incarceration. In the work that we're doing, we're helping women make new choices and also have a voice about what they want to do and where they want to go and how effective it is to use it.
The other thing that she used to talk about is how do we use all that you've learned from your experience to find a new you. How do you use the skills that you've developed? Say you were a drug dealer. How do you use those skills to find a new you?
Because all the energies that you spent in the past doing some of the work that society says you should not have been doing, how do you use those for this new job? How do you cultivate them so that they are so much more than you can even imagine?
Those things I actually used for my own self in making sure that I continue to have a voice. Also, she helped me center the work of women of color and how it-- and let me see how incarceration was disproportionately affecting black and brown individuals. I credit my conversations, the work that we did together, the trainings that she had me attend, and how she built me up as a young person coming up because I was about 21 when I met her.
It helped me frame who I am by making sure that I had voice and choice in the things that I was doing. Even while I was going to see my brother who was incarcerated, sometimes she would ask me about a visit and talk about it with me because I didn't talk about it with a lot of people, but I talked about it with her. [Tearing] Now that's coming back to me that I did talk about it with her. She asked me how I felt and what was happening and what it felt like to have everybody depending on you to bring them to see your brother.
I think those are the kinds of things that you need when you're doing this work -- someone who you can depend on, someone that's a mentor and a coach. She’s someone who influenced me greatly and helped me to purpose women.
Now I talk a lot about voice and choice for women and how important that is.
Ava: Yes, definitely. Having that connection with somebody you can talk to is vital in ensuring you're taking care of yourself so that you can go out and care for others. We're coming to the close of our interview here, but I've got one more question.
What would you say if you were giving one last piece of advice about making a difference?
Alethea: Incarceration is not what we see on Orange is the New Black. I would encourage people to learn more about people who are formerly incarcerated. I'm in lots of conversations outside of my organization with friends, with family members, at hair salons, and just at the bus stop in the train station, where someone asks you what you do, and they'll say things like, "Oof, that's a lot. But these people, they need to be locked up!”
I always ask the question, “Why?”
It's always jarring to people when I'm asking why should they be locked up.
I'm not necessarily an abolitionist, but I do believe that there are significant ways and significant, restorative ways that we can help people instead of locking them up. That’s something that's very real and we have a proof of that with restorative justice practices.
The way I think that people could make a difference is that they can learn more about what incarceration is.
I realize that people are in communities that are afraid and that there are people that have been doing things to communities for many years. We have a lot of trauma in our communities.
Whatever color the community, sexual orientation, gender, whatever, there's so much trauma around us and there's trauma around incarceration. But I also think that as communities, we're not talking about it more, and we're not talking openly about incarceration until something happens.
I think that we should be having conversations about the criminal legal system, incarceration, people who are in prison and when they should come home, and we should be educating ourselves. The more we're educating ourselves, the more that we can have people change their hearts minds about what it's like to be someone who's formerly incarcerated.
The other thing that I would encourage is having opportunities to volunteer and to really help at organizations such as ours to really understand what we do. I think all of that would create a much healthier society if we truly are sitting down and listening to one another and just learning.
Ava: Yes, I definitely agree with what you were saying there. Thank you so much for taking the time to interview with KidsMates and share your thoughts and experiences and for allowing us to look a little into your life and your work. Thank you so much.
Alethea: I really appreciate it. And thank you for the work that you're doing.
For more information about Hour Children, please click here.