The Osborne Association: Seeing and Supporting Children of Incarcerated Parents
By Joshua Martoma, Age 15
Today, KidsMates is talking with Tanya Krupat, an integral part of the Osborne Association. For almost ninety years, this storied New York non-profit has helped people affected by incarceration.
Since 2015, Osborne’s annual “See Us Support Us” (SUSU) initiative has taken place every October. SUSU aims to amplify the voices of children with incarcerated parents. I was first introduced to SUSU after speaking at a conference on parental incarceration. Later that day, I found some of my thoughts featured on Osborne’s social media. It really expanded the reach of my voice!
This month, I’m so proud to work under Tanya’s guidance as part of Osborne's first-ever SUSU Youth Team. We want to shine a light on the silent American epidemic of parental incarceration. As Director of the Center for Justice Across Generations, Tanya is a driving force behind Osborne’s many initiatives (such as helping Sesame Street create a muppet with an incarcerated father). Tanya brings with her a remarkable wealth of knowledge and compassion for children with incarcerated parents. I’ve gotten to know Tanya better through SUSU and realize she has many pearls of life wisdom. I’m really excited to have her as my guest for this KidsMates’ virtual chat.
Joshua: Thanks for joining us, Tanya. Let’s just jump straight to it. Tell us your story.
Tanya: Well, we all have a unique path bringing us to the labor of love that is working with and advocating on behalf of children whose parents are incarcerated. Osborne has a long history of working to transform prisons. We believe that people should be treated with dignity and respect and assisted with transforming their lives, rather than being subjected to harsh and ongoing punishments. My own story leads back to one family in Detroit whose mother was incarcerated and who I met when I was a social work student. The challenges they faced and my getting to know the three children and their father changed the trajectory of my professional life.
Joshua: Everyone’s experience with incarceration is unique! I think the fact that a single family motivated you to change your life plans really demonstrates your compassion and open-mindedness. Is there anything in the last year that you’ve been focused on that inspires your work today?
Tanya: This year - after nine years of advocating alongside many courageous young people - the New York State Legislature finally passed the Proximity Bill! This bill would place incarcerated parents closer to their children, making visiting much easier. We currently await the Governor’s signing of the bill into law.
The Proximity Bill originated from young people sharing their experiences and telling their stories. Elected officials listened, and the bill (also referred to as “April’s Law”) was named after one particular young person who spoke about distance being a barrier separating her and her mother. This bill is not only important for what it will accomplish, but for the message it sends to young people: you and your experiences are powerful, and you can create changes for the better around you!
Joshua: You’re absolutely right. We can all be changemakers. I know from personal experience that distance can be a major obstacle for visiting an incarcerated parent. I hope other states follow Proximity. Are there other efforts at Osborne that people aren’t aware of?
Tanya: From our name - the Osborne Association - people don’t realize that we focus on broad services to those in the criminal legal system, including children and families, and that we work hard to transform the current system towards one that is built on healing and accountability. Also, from the name of our initiative - “New York Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents” - people don’t realize that we work across the full spectrum of how a parent’s involvement in the criminal legal system (from arrest to reentry) affects their children. We use the Children of Incarcerated Parents’ Bill of Rights as a guiding document to consider children at every point.
Joshua: Wow, there’s even more going on at Osborne than I realized. I know I’ve enjoyed being a part of SUSU, another Osborne initiative. From your perspective, what’s the most important thing to understand about children or families dealing with incarceration?
Tanya: A recent study by FWD.us revealed that one of every two people in the U.S. has a family member who has been incarcerated. So, children and families dealing with incarceration are not “them.” THEY ARE “US.”
Almost everyone knows someone who has been arrested or incarcerated, so we should have a great deal of empathy and compassion to bring to this cause and to each other. The stigma of incarceration keeps people and families apart and isolated, when, in reality, the number of people who experience the effects of incarceration number in the millions. Some of the most powerful relationships and support are among families who meet in line waiting to be processed to visit a loved one or on a bus to get to a faraway prison. The other way that judgment and stigma do harm is by pitting families of the incarcerated against families of victims/survivors. The reality is often complex and messy, and many families are both at once. Many people in prison were first victims of violence or unnamed and untreated trauma.
If we can come from a place of compassion, connectedness, and healing rather than judgment and categorizing, children and families with an incarcerated loved one would feel more supported and better able to find one another. If we can then bring this perspective to the level of policy, we could transform our current system into one truly built around justice. As Cornel West says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” We have a long way to go.
Joshua: That’s deep advice! Do you have any tips for children coping with adversity?
Tanya: First, you are not alone, no matter how lonely this experience can feel, and you are stronger, wiser, and more powerful than you know. While it’s not fair that you have to go through what you do, it does not have to limit your present or future; in fact, it can be a source of strength and motivation. There are examples of people who have gone through similar struggles - though yours is unique, and you are unique - and it can be helpful to find out more about their journeys; it might give you hope and inspiration. It can also be helpful to seek out someone to talk with - a caring adult, friend, mentor, or professional. If you have a passion, that can also help you get through challenging times - if you love to write, sing, dance, read, code, play ball….do these things as often as you can. And if you haven’t yet found your “spark,” try out different things...it will come. This is also a very hard time on top of whatever you are going through, so remember to give yourself a big hug at least once a day!
Joshua: Tanya, where does all your wisdom come from? Who's been your biggest influence?
Tanya: While there are many powerful and important books to read and many thought leaders and advocates across the country to follow and learn from, I would say that the children and young people I have had the honor to get to know and work with over the past 20 years have most influenced my thoughts and understanding of parental incarceration, as well as the parents who are incarcerated or were formerly incarcerated, and caregivers. People living the issue are the true experts and their insights and experiences have been the best teachers and most transformative for me. They also inspire me and fuel my passion to create change: they had no choice in becoming experts in parental incarceration; it’s up to those of us who have a choice to listen to them and call for changes to create a more just place for children to grow up in. We have a tremendous amount of work to do and we owe a better world to our children.
Joshua: I want to close by asking you what's your best advice for those of us wanting to making a positive difference in our lives and the world?
Tanya: One piece of advice I would give to someone wanting to get more involved and support children who have an incarcerated parent would be to inform yourself about the issue. There are great resources out there for doing so - including KidsMates! This is See Us, Support Us month so it’s a great month to start getting involved - you can check out the See Us, Support Us (SUSU) website for lots of great resources including writing by children and youth who are the experts and know what feels supportive and what doesn’t. Echoes of Incarceration also has powerful, short films made by youth with incarcerated parents. This and many other resources are on the SUSU website.
One simple place to start supporting children is also by shifting our language and being mindful of the messages we are fed about people who are incarcerated: media headlines often do not refer to people as people or parents, but as “inmates,” “convicts,” “criminals.” Next time you see a headline or story, examine it for how it is portraying the people in the article: is it perpetuating racist or other stereotypes? What is it leaving out? Most people who are arrested or incarcerated are parents. Adopting humanizing language and a child’s-eye view of what we read, see, and hear can be an important step towards making a positive contribution that will support children and families.
Joshua: That’s a perfect place to conclude. We’re all just somebody’s parent, somebody’s child, or somebody’s friend. Thank you again, Tanya. It’s been wonderful speaking with you.
If you’d like to find out more about The Osborne Association, you can find them at www.osborneny.org.