ANCHORAGE - A new Alaska project aimed at helping children of prison inmates kicked off Friday.
Catholic Community Service in Juneau is heading up the project, which began with a conference at the Millennium Hotel in Anchorage. The event drew school principals, state correctional officers, social workers and others from Ketchikan to Kotzebue. Organizers believe the event was the first statewide conference in the country addressing the issue of children with incarcerated parents.
"If we all combine efforts, maybe we can do something for these kids and their caregivers," said Sarah Williams, substance abuse program coordinator for the Department of Corrections.
Officials estimate that several thousand Alaska children have incarcerated parents, based on national studies showing that about 70 percent of prisoners have children. There are about 4,600 inmates in the Alaska prison system, counting those housed in Arizona.
Children of inmates tend to be poor, according to the Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents in California. They suffer from emotional or behavioral problems. They have problems in school.
They may feel ashamed, as children of divorced parents did a generation ago, said Peter Breen, a member of the national advisory committee of the Child Welfare League of America.
Children of inmates often are cared for by aging grandparents or friends of their parents with troubles of their own. The caregivers may not know where to get counseling or how to apply for public benefits such as Medicaid health insurance, project organizers said.
Children are allowed to visit their incarcerated parents, but it may be supervised or they may be separated by a glass partition.
Alaska has no program allowing young children to live at a prison with mothers. Such programs help both the parent and child, but often don't have many participants despite the large number of parents in prison, Breen said.
Participants identified several steps that could be considered:
* Asking newly arrested people about their children when they are booked.
* Creating a Web site where caregivers and children can go for help.
* Encouraging information-sharing between agencies.
* Linking caregivers with existing social and health supports.
* Using video conferences to allow children in remote areas to see and talk to their parents.
* Creating an individual care plan for each child of an inmate.
The system will get better "one child at a time," said Rosemary Hagevig, executive director of Catholic Community Service in Juneau.
A three-year grant from the National Institute of Corrections, part of the U.S. Justice Department, is assisting the project. Catholic Community Service was awarded $135,000 a year, one of two large grants for the children of inmates project nationwide, Hagevig said.
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