Rutgers' Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated x KidsMates
KidsMates continues exploring academic and policy research on parental incarceration. Today, co-founder, David Martoma, speaks with Ann Adalist-Estrin, a battle-tested veteran in the political trenches of parental incarceration. Ann understands the nuances of the evolving criminal justice reform landscape. She's been doing policy work in this field for over 43 years and has personally dealt with losing someone close to the prison system. Ann is the current Director of the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated (NRCCFI) at Rutgers University-Camden, New Jersey.
Ann's priorities at NRCCFI are spreading accurate information about parental incarceration, developing family-strengthening policies, activating other changemakers working in the field, and making incarceration-related decisions more inclusive to impacted families and communities. Under Ann's leadership, NRCCFI has consulted government and non-government agencies and community programs in 47 states. Ann also teaches at Rutgers's Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminal Justice.
I remember first meeting Ann when speaking at Arizona State University's Conference for Children of Incarcerated Parents in 2019, so I am thrilled to have a fresh opportunity to talk with her today in 2023! In our interview, we'll talk about her experiences working for three different U.S. Presidential administrations and her academic and personal insights on relevant topics. Ann has so many tips, and I know you enjoy what she has to share. Please welcome my guest, Ms. Ann Adalist-Estrin!
David: I am so excited that you have joined KidsMates! So, the first question is, tell us your story related to the criminal justice system and your work with Rutgers, healthcare research on incarceration, and parental incarceration.
Ann: I've been doing this work for forty-three years. I am a child and family therapist by training and got involved in working with families impacted by the criminal legal system when I got a grant back in the 1970s to run a program in a county jail for incarcerated parents and their kids who visited. There was a parenting class for the parents and a visiting program for the kids. That initiated my eagerness to learn more about what was going on nationally around the country. And then I ended up being the Director of the Federal Resource Center on Children and Prisoners during the Bill Clinton administration in Washington. That was the first time that my work began looking at a national perspective. Then, as the administration in Washington changed, the focus on the kids changed, and so my work changed. It went from focusing on programs across the country that connected the kids with their parents to programs that provided mentoring in the community and kind of disconnected the kids from their parents, which was a whole different mindset. And we did a lot of training for those programs that did mentoring. Then, that went to another administration that looked at systems that involved the kids like education and healthcare. Nowadays, we're looking at what specific state governments can do and also how to build infrastructures within systems - like building playgrounds in prison so the kids can play when they visit and building libraries and schools that are focused on kids with different family situation that they can go and look up materials and get books. Building those resources within the systems is getting good support from both the state and federal government. So that's what has led me to do what I do.
But I have to say that in that forty-something year history, about thirty years into it, my son-in-law went to prison for a year and my daughter and two grandchildren came to live with me. And so then I became a caregiver and a family member dealing with the criminal legal system in a way that I had only experienced through the lens of an academic or a professional before. And that is really an important part of my story.
David: Wow! You've seen so much in your 43 years of experience. It's amazing how the different political institutions changed the focus of your work and how you personally dealt with the challenges of a family member's incarceration. My next question is a little more recent. What is the most critical thing NRCCFI or you have done in the last year to help children or families facing incarceration?
Ann: I would say that in all the years of my work, the focus has always been on either the parent inside (the incarcerated parent) or the children. And the caregiver parent - the mom, or the grandma, or the dad - who were at home caring for the kids really got very little attention for all of those decades. And so the most important thing I think that we've done over the last couple of years was to spearhead and advocate for the creation of caregiver guides. These booklets are designed and written for caregiver parents and are popping up all over the place - all over the world actually - so that we can begin to provide some resources to the caregivers. These guides cover everything from how do you tell the difference between the typical reactions kids have because they're five versus because they're upset that mom or dad are incarcerated, how to answer certain questions, how to prepare kids for a visit, how to take care of yourself as a caregiver, and how to access your own resources. Over the past year, this project has really taken off and it's been a really, really important new project for us that I am most proud of and happy about.
David: Yeah, that's wonderful because many caregivers are unsure how to deal with parental incarceration. So, spreading awareness and giving caregivers a guide is essential. That leads me to my next question - what do people need to understand about NRCCFI or your other projects that they may not already know? In other words, what misunderstandings would you like to correct?
Ann: That's easy! Most people don't understand that we're not a direct service organization. As a professor at Rutgers University in the Criminal Justice Department, every year I have some students come to the Resource Center to take on some aspects of operating the center. And one of the students always does an assessment of who comes to NRCCFI and what they come for? I would say that the hardest and most heartbreaking part is that people ask for services. For example, they ask can you get me a lawyer, or how can you help me find my children, or how do I get resources to teach the school how to handle parental incarceration better, or even how do I prove my innocence? Because we're not a direct service organization, we don't see families and we don't have funding to answer the massive amount of letters we get from incarcerated parents. That is the misunderstanding that I'd like to clear up because it happens that people advertise us as a direct service in prisoner newsletters and so we have to spend time trying to clarify and correct that misconception because otherwise it's a whole lot of unmet needs and unmet questions. On the other hand, we do provide training, technical assistance, and information in order to help groups facing parental incarceration.
David: I'm glad we can clear that up! As a follow-up question, where would you direct all these people with questions or unmet needs?
Ann: I don't think we could because the questions people have are so varied. Questions come in from all fifty states. As a result, much of what people are asking for is different state by state. It also depends on whether the question is a legal or a psychological question. So there isn't one organization that I could point you to and I think that is part of the difficulty dealing with parental incarceration.
David: Speaking of parental incarceration, we often liken it to a silent epidemic. So, what is one thing you want the world to know about children or families dealing with incarceration?
Ann: Wonderful question. I think for the longest time it was a silent epidemic, but it was
often silent because families wanted it to be. The system and the services were not supportive and so families weren't going to come forward on their own. In this way, parental incarceration was silent by choice. If families don't feel supported, they won't start sharing what they have going on in terms of parental incarceration. But recently, a group called fwd.us did a study that said one in two people in America have had a close family member or a close friend incarcerated in their lifetime. That means half of us! People with this lived experience are everywhere. They're everywhere around us. Not one zip code. Not one neighborhood. But everyone reacts differently to parental incarceration. I think it's really important to acknowledge that there are common themes that all the families facing parental incarceration go through, but then recognize that there are many differences depending on what families' other circumstances are. That is my most important message!
David: That's a powerful message! It's unbelievable to think that almost half of us know someone close that went to prison. What are some of your top tips for them?
Ann: I have a top tip for each of the "players". I think that a top tip for kids is to find people to talk about parental incarceration. It might be through websites like KidsMates where you can find resource lists and then see that there are other kids who had a parent incarcerated that are talking about it. Or it may be in school that a guidance counselor has a book on their desk about parental incarceration and that makes you feel more comfortable about sharing your own experiences. For example, one kid told me that she ran across a little boy whose father had been deported and although their experiences were slightly different, just having somebody to talk to made all the difference. As such, I would say a top tip is to find somebody to talk to and find that kind of support.
I would say my top tip for the caregiver is to also find support - but to find support in working on telling kids the truth. So many kids are not told the truth - they're told "dad is in the army" or "mom is at college" - and we know that it makes kids more anxious because in the back of their minds they know that something is not fully truthful. So, my top tip is to work on getting comfortable with truth-telling
Finally, my top tip for the parent in prison is to stay connected even when it's discouraging. Even if you don't know where your child is, write letters and hold them in a box somewhere, because someday those kids may be able to look at this box of letters and that can have a huge positive impact on your relationship with them. No lie, I've had lots of kids tell me that they've discovered ten or eleven years worth of letters their incarcerated parent wrote. It makes them so happy because they thought their parent didn't care.
David: From your answers, it is clear that you have a lot of experience dealing with incarceration. Who or what most influenced that view, and how did they affect it?
Ann: Wow, when you've been doing this for so long it's hard to say. However, I have to say that my grandchildren thirty years into my work had the most influence on me because living the experience and walking in those shoes challenged me.
I remember always talking with caregivers about having to keep consistent schedules and not to break the rules just because their kids were dealing with something difficult. But the first night that my grandchildren were in my house, I snuck them some cookies. My daughter said, "Mom, they're not supposed to eat cookies and beds," but I was feeling like I wanted to ease their pain. They were heartbroken. Their dad was gone. Based on that, I would say that the experience of living it after just sort of being an academic was the most significant influence. Otherwise, all the families that I have done focus groups, council meetings, and podcasts with have really influenced me.
David: It is fantastic to hear how your journey has led you to where you are now! As we finish, what would you say if you could give one last piece of advice about making a difference in general?
Ann: I can't narrow it down to one, so I have two. One is nothing about us without us. That means making sure that those people who have lived the experience of parental incarceration are included in defining the problem and designing the solution. You've got to take their input right from the beginning - not when it's all built. When you bake a cake and then you ask someone else to taste it, it's too late if they don't like it. Likewise, you can't bring people in when your program is designed or your policy is written and then say, "Can you approve that?" You have to involve kids (like you), caregivers, and incarcerated parents right from the beginning. And it's not easy. It's hard to find people. It's hard to get them there. It's hard to get all different people, the kids, the caregivers, the incarcerated parents who all have different agendas and different competing perspectives. It isn't easy, but it is the most important piece of advice that I have.
The second one is about research. When I started this work, there was hardly any research about children of incarcerated parents. Nowadays, there's a lot of research, but you have to sift through it and decide when it's really accurate versus when it's based on a very small sample size or a very specific population. Some people will take results and construe them in ways that are negative for kids. For example, one study said children with incarcerated parents are more likely than their peers to eat junk food and to get a poor amount of sleep at night. And that was a pretty well written up study that child welfare people used to say, "That must mean that this is a group of kids who are neglected by their parents." Well, that's really not true. The actual discussion should be, "Why might that be true?" And all the reasons, like people living in food deserts, people not having fresh groceries nearby, or parents going to school full time, working two jobs, and not having enough time to cook home-cooked meals largely explains the results. When people read the research, read it carefully, examine the sources, and always ask, "why might this be true?" Don't just assume that there's a negative reason for results, because that not only harms the parents themselves but also the kids.
David: What an insightful place to pause our interview until the next conversation. Ann, thank you for coming here and answering all these questions. I really learned so much from you today, as I have always. Your advice and stories are going to help a lot of KidsMates families. NRCCFI is a fantastic organization. Please visit their website here for anyone who wants more information about the NRCCFI's work.