THE BRONX — Of the many reasons a child might be separated from a parent — military deployment, divorce, even death — incarceration is one of the few causes stained by stigma.
Elizabeth Gaynes, executive director of the Osborne Association, a nonprofit that serves people affected by the criminal justice system, knows this well.
When her children were young, their father was sent to prison.
Soon, she found certain parents were reluctant to let their children play with her daughter.
On her son’s school evaluation one year, the first sentence did not describe his personality or learning style, but rather the fact that he was the child of a prisoner.
“There’s just a way of looking at people who are connected to people presumed to be criminals,” Gaynes said. “It’s kind of the mark of Cain for these kids.”
Since joining Osborne in 1984, Gaynes has expanded the agency from a staff of two to more than 200 today, with programs in 21 New York State prisons, on Rikers Island and at three service centers in New York City and upstate.
Last week, Gaynes and 11 other advocates from across the country were recognized by the White House for their work on behalf of children with incarcerated parents as “Champions of Change," an award given regularly to leaders on social issues.
“Advocates always complain about what’s undone,” Gaynes said. “But the reality is that, in 30 years, a lot has changed.”
Gaynes was a law student at Syracuse University with no special interest in incarceration when the Attica prison riots erupted in 1971. After graduating, her first clients were inmates involved in the uprising.
A few years later, Gaynes left the legal profession to focus entirely on prisoners and their families, taking the top post at Osborne, an agency founded in 1933 in honor of Thomas Mott Osborne, a crusading prison reformer who served as the warden of Sing Sing.
As head of the then-small agency, Gaynes added an office in The Bronx, where she grew up.
Then, drawing on the experience of her children and their incarcerated father, Gaynes helped create a suite of services, called FamilyWorks, centered on prisoners and their families.
The program, now in several prisons around the state, includes child-friendly family visiting centers, parenting and relationship classes, family events and counseling.
Launched in 1986, Osborne calls FamilyWorks the first and longest-running parenting program in a men’s state prison.
The agency also runs support groups and a toll-free hotline for inmates’ families, flies children to far-off upstate prisons to see parents and arranges “tele-visits” over secure videophone connections.
Each program is based on the notion, backed by research, that both inmates and their families benefit when prisoners continue parenting from behind bars.
“In our view,” Gaynes said, “you can do just about everything from prison but go to soccer practice."
As the number of incarcerated Americans has ballooned over the past few decades, so has the number of children with a parent in prison or jail.
After an increase of about 80 percent in the past 20 years, there are now some 2.7 million minor children nationwide with an incarcerated parent, according to estimates.
In New York State alone, there are about 100,000 such young people.
The experience is devastating for many children, who can be traumatized by witnessing an arrest, haunted by visions of their parent in prison and shamed by peers.
Meanwhile, the children’s living arrangements may be upended, as relatives or foster parents take custody or non-incarcerated parents struggle with fewer resources.
Making matters worse, few supports exist for such children, unlike those with parents who are ill or divorced.
“Historically, there has been very little attention paid,” Gaynes said, noting that no single agency is responsible for children with incarcerated parents.
But now, the issue may finally be getting a moment in the spotlight.
At the White House ceremony last week, an administration official announced that several million dollars had been allocated for research and services for families with an incarcerated parent.
Also at the event, Sesame Street launched a new initiative for children in such families.
The package of bilingual videos, apps and toolkits centers on a new Muppet, Alex, whose father is in prison.
Gaynes was one of several expert advisers on the project who consulted with Sesame Street staff, led them on prison tours and arranged brainstorming sessions with inmates and their families.
The awards and the initiative push the issue of children with incarcerated parents “from the background to the foreground,” Gaynes said.
“And that’s what these kids need more than anything else,” she added. “To be exposed to the sunlight, to come out of the shadows, and be proud of themselves and their families.”