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.
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."