Identifying and supporting children of inmates | Citizen Awards | Indy Week
Pin It

Identifying and supporting children of inmates 

Who in here is a basketball or baseball fan?" Melissa Radcliff asks the government workers gathered for her recent presentation in Durham. Many hands go up.

"Imagine Duke's Cameron Stadium, N.C. Central's basketball stadium, and the Durham Bulls stadium," Radcliff says. "If you fill all three stadiums, you still don't have enough seats for the children in North Carolina with parents in prison."

Radcliff likes to use visuals when speaking about the often-overlooked demographic she champions: children of inmates. Radcliff directs Our Children's Place, a Chapel Hill nonprofit dedicated to identifying and supporting kids of parents in North Carolina state prisons.

Radcliff cites N.C. Department of Public Safety statistics, which suggest there are 25,970 such children—a figure that doesn't reflect parents housed in county jails and federal prisons. Considering that many inmates don't disclose that they are fathers and mothers, Radcliff suspects the real tally is closer to 50,000, the number the N.C. Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission cites. Nationally, one in 28 kids, or a child in each classroom, has a parent behind bars, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. For African-American children, the rate is one in nine.

click to enlarge Melissa Radcliff of Our Children's Place: "No matter how many presentations I give, the reaction is always the same: I've never thought about these children because no one has ever asked me." - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • Photo by Jeremy M. Lange
  • Melissa Radcliff of Our Children's Place: "No matter how many presentations I give, the reaction is always the same: I've never thought about these children because no one has ever asked me."

Children with incarcerated parents face unsurprising challenges: financial instability, social problems and poor school performance. Emotional repercussions include shame, stigma, guilt, grief, anger and a feeling of abandonment. Isolation can occur if, for example, a teacher assigns a family-tree exercise, or a playmate asks, "Are you like your dad or mom?"

Radcliff helps adults recognize such sensitivities. She also teaches parents how to jumpstart difficult conversations with their children, and encourages kids to share their stories. She frequently participates in "Parent Days" in jails and prisons, encourages pastors to devote sermons to the issue, and gives talks to after-school groups, health providers and legislators. She helps arrange shuttles to prisons, encourages letter-writing and speaks to school principals at a parent's request.

"You don't lose parental rights in prison," Radcliff tells the crowd in Durham. "Parents in prison still love their children. And kids still love their parents."

Sometimes, a young child doesn't know a parent is incarcerated. Many parents are too embarrassed for visits, or conversations. The topic, Radcliff concedes, "isn't warm and cuddly."

A woman at the Durham gathering raises her hand. "My sister didn't want to talk to my 4-year-old niece about it until recently," she says. "Beforehand, she just said, 'Daddy's far away.' "Another woman chimes in. Her son, who is in jail, recently received a visit from his young stepson, who pushed at the glass separation window. "Daddy, why can't I touch you?" he asked.

In 2013 Radcliff partnered with Sesame Workshop, which was marketing a new Sesame Street Muppet named Alex, whose father is in jail. Alex is featured in a bilingual DVD and informational packet designed to teach children of inmates that they are not alone.

Sesame piloted the Alex program in 10 states—North Carolina was not one of them—but Radcliff lobbied the company to adopt the state as an "add-on," she says. Now every North Carolina public library includes the Alex DVD on its racks, and Radcliff has further provided 750 DVDs to individuals, organizations and families. She hopes to add school libraries to that list this year.

"Our community is better because of Melissa," says Dave Nickel, a chaplain with Orange Correctional Center. "Her work, both in supporting these kids, and in educating the rest of us about their existence and needs, is essential in breaking the cycle of incarceration."

Prior to joining Our Children's Place in 2007, Radcliff was the founding director of the Family Violence Prevention Center of Orange County, a domestic violence agency. She spent the bulk of her career in victims' services.

"Oftentimes we lock up the bad guy and to ourselves, 'We're all set,' and wash our hands of it," Radcliff tells the government workers in Durham. "But we're not thinking that this bad guy might be a parent who still wants a relationship with a child who loves him."

  • 2015 Citizen Award winner Melissa Radcliff

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

INDY Week publishes all kinds of comments, but we don't publish everything.

  • Comments that are not contributing to the conversation will be removed.
  • Comments that include ad hominem attacks will also be removed.
  • Please do not copy and paste the full text of a press release.

Permitted HTML:
  • To create paragraphs in your comment, type <p> at the start of a paragraph and </p> at the end of each paragraph.
  • To create bold text, type <b>bolded text</b> (please note the closing tag, </b>).
  • To create italicized text, type <i>italicized text</i> (please note the closing tag, </i>).
  • Proper web addresses will automatically become links.

Latest in Citizen Awards



Twitter Activity

Most Recent Comments

Congratulations Marcia! You are so deserving! It takes a lot of courage and commitment to stay with the work you …

by lsthomasson on Citizen Award: Judge Marcia Morey Wants to Make Juvenile Justice More Just (Citizen Awards)

I Am a woman in great need of a civil rights attorney. I came to the Independent a Few years …

by Melissa Felicelli on Marty Rosenbluth: Fighting for the rights of undocumented immigrants (Citizen Awards)

The fact that Mark Anthony, who's from a different generation, can find ways to reach the current generation of young …

by Al W. on Citizen Award: Mark Anthony Neal Teaches What It Means To Be a Black Man (Citizen Awards)

So blessed to call Nation my friend.

by MartinNHM on Citizen Award: How Nation Hahn Turned Tragedy into a Mission (Citizen Awards)

One of the many pieces of good work Erin does. Very well-deserved!

by Beth Dotson Messersmith on Working to eliminate food deserts in Southeast Raleigh (Citizen Awards)

Comments

Congratulations Marcia! You are so deserving! It takes a lot of courage and commitment to stay with the work you …

by lsthomasson on Citizen Award: Judge Marcia Morey Wants to Make Juvenile Justice More Just (Citizen Awards)

I Am a woman in great need of a civil rights attorney. I came to the Independent a Few years …

by Melissa Felicelli on Marty Rosenbluth: Fighting for the rights of undocumented immigrants (Citizen Awards)

Most Read

No recently-read stories.

Visit the archives…

© 2016 Indy Week • 201 W. Main St., Suite 101, Durham, NC 27701 • phone 919-286-1972 • fax 919-286-4274
RSS Feeds | Powered by Foundation