|A scene from the film "Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration." |
/ Sesame Workshop / CBS News
June 9, 2013 10:02 AM
New Sesame Workshop film helps children of jailed parents
(CBS News) A new program is aiming to make kids in crisis streetwise -- "Sesame Street" wise, that is. Seth Doane reports:
At 24, Francis Adjei is now the head of his household, a role he never imagined having to play.
"One day, we're all together having dinner; following day, she's in jail. And we don't know what to do," he said.
Two years ago his mother, Jackie Pokuwaah, A Ghanaian immigrant, was convicted of grand larceny, and is serving a seven-and-a-half-year sentence at a state penitentiary.
Adjei had to drop out of school, and now spends his days managing his siblings' schedules, trying to keep them in school.
His 7-year-old brother, Tyler, has to catch the school bus by 7:15. His 19-year-old sister, Francisca, who has epilepsy, helps where she can; and Francis spends an hour each way taking his 10-year-old sister, Breanna, on the subway to get her to school.
"My mother, the only person that takes care of all these things, she's not around. So now, it all falls on me now," Francis told Doane.
"When the police came and took your mom," Doane asked Francis, "did anyone ever explain what it meant to be incarcerated?"
"To the children? No," he replied. "We've never went down that direct path, just kind of been beating around the bush."
"Why was it so difficult to explain, to talk about?"
"I don't know, it was a very hard position to be in," he replied. "I didn't know what to tell them. I didn't even know how to go about it."
But soon Adjei and his brothers and sisters will find a little help on a familiar street: Sesame Street.
Melissa Dino is in charge of a Sesame Workshop production aimed at helping families like Francis' cope.
She told Doane she was struck by the lack of resources for those with an incarcerated parent.
The new, 30-minute documentary mixes the fictional with real-life. It will not air on the regular "Sesame Street" show, but will be distributed this week to therapists' offices, schools and prisons.
And there is certainly a built-in audience. According to the Pew Charitable Trust, there are currently 2.3 million Americans behind bars, the largest prison population in the world, which means one in every 28 kids in the U.S. has a parent in prison. That's up from one in 125 just 25 years ago.
"Collateral Costs: Incarceration's Effect on Economic Mobility" - Pew Charitable Trust (pdf)
Some of those 2.7 million minors -- including Francis' sister, Breanna Amankwah -- say they don't like people to know a parent is in prison.
"When it comes up in a conversation, I just feel uncomfortable, like, really uncomfortable," she told Doane. "I don't feel like talking. I kind of feel a little stiff, and I don't really feel normal."
"Why do you say that you don't feel normal?" asked Doane.
"Because it feels like I'm sick or something," she replied.
Dino said children sometimes think it's their fault that a parent was incarcerated. "They have difficult, guilty feelings; they have all kinds of feelings. They're not sure how to express them," she said.
"Incarcerated" features a Muppet character, Alex, who has experienced a father who is in jail. The colorful character is, in effect, color-blind.
"The beauty of a Muppet," said Dino, "is they can be any color. They can speak to so many different children. Alex is orange and he's got blue hair, so he doesn't speak to any one particular ethnicity or race. He speaks to all children."
Sesame Workshop, which let us peek behind the scenes at its nine-month-long process, has in recent years tackled issues from divorce to deployment to death.
And Sesame recognized that incarceration was an issue that affected kids, too. More than 50 percent (54%) of people behind bars have a child under 18.
"You see the mom squeezing her kid's hand a little tighter saying 'It's gonna be okay,' you explain the loud sounds you hear when the bars close, you explain all of the waiting -- it's almost like you're trying to help some kids go through the process," said Doane.
"Absolutely," said Dino. "It's intimidating. You just imagine -- and I'm a mother -- a young child waking up to this building and the barbed wire and the guards and the guns and the security process. And it's so intimidating and so scary."
When asked if she knew what to expect when she went into a prison, Breanna said, "Not really. I went through security and they put this kind of invisible ink on my hand with this number on it. So then, we walked through these metal gates."
Breanna, a fan of anything Sesame, says it can all be a little disorienting. Her brother Francis believes it's just as tough on the caretaker, no matter the age.
"Because it's different situations popping up every day," he said. "Today, maybe you need to tell them why she's not around. But tomorrow, you have to tell them why there's no food."
So Sesame Street, in its simple, familiar way, is trying to break it down, using imaginary characters to explore -- and explain -- what was once unimaginable, but now more and more common.
For more info:
•"Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration" (Toolkit for kids, parents)
•The Osborne Association
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