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Helping kids with incarcerated parents

Posted 3:01 a.m. Saturday

— For at least a minute or two, they shared a normal mother-and-daughter embrace. They traded kisses, tentative at first, then twirled together, their long hair flying out in a wide arc.

"We are the best dancers," the daughter, 10, assured her mother while patting her on the head.

But then a door slammed in the background, a heavy metal door, with a weight that said this was anything but normal.

"This is a special visit," explained Jen Strasenburgh, the county's only advocate for the more than 3,000 children across Lancaster County who have one or both parents in jail. "They are allowed one per month where it's just the child and the parent and me in the room, no correction officer."

Although the program Strasenburgh manages single-handedly gets nothing but high marks from officials, families and even national studies that report programs like this one reduce recidivism, it's future is uncertain.

Strasenburgh's title is family services advocate and her job is contracted by the county through Compass Mark, an addiction-prevention program. Her goal is to reduce the trauma children feel when a parent is locked up by making sure they have legal guardianship, stable housing, clothing, food, health insurance, school enrollment and therapy.

One sometimes-controversial service she provides is to foster regular contact between the jailed parent and the child.

Nearly 500 children have been referred to the program since it began two-and-a-half years ago. Strasenburgh currently has 108 cases open and about 70 of those she calls "very active," families in need of immediate services.

Deciding priorities

"Anecdotally, it's a positive program," said County Commissioner Josh Parsons, who oversees the prison system. "We're looking at the data, and since we are dealing with children, it's harder to know the results for some time to come."

Parsons said the program is funded through the end of the year but its future will be decided by the commissioners later this month.

The $66,000 annual cost of the program comes out of the prisoners' commissary fund — essentially the prisoners themselves.

But that fund has shrunk over time as the prison population has declined. And there are other established programs that also draw funds from the same source, including a re-entry management program to help inmates get jobs and housing when they are released and an education program for women who are incarcerated.

Parsons said at the beginning of May the prison commissary account balance was at $864,228. Year-to-date receipts were 349,963, while the year-to-date expenditures were $367,262, representing an unsustainable drawdown of the block of money.

"We have a responsibility to look at all the programs and how they affect people at the prison every day," Parsons said.

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Raising a granddaughter

"Honest to Pete, I never thought we'd be doing this," said Leona Morrow, 58, of Manheim.

Since October, she and her partner of 11 years, Kenny Stauffer, also 58, have been raising her granddaughter, whose parents are incarcerated in Lancaster County Prison.

Like so many others, their crimes, including various retail thefts, grew out of an ever-worsening heroin habit, the girl's mother acknowledged.

"She's strong but she hides a lot of her sadness," Morrow said while she listened to her granddaughter draw slow notes out of a stringed instrument she got from school. "In little bits and pieces she'll let it out."

It was actually the child psychologist at the granddaughter's elementary school who suggested the 10-year-old be evaluated for counseling, and she referred Morrow to Strasenburgh's program.

Like many others in the county who are suddenly thrust into the situation of having a family member in prison, Morrow had no idea how to establish guardianship for her granddaughter, get her necessary health care and provide the kind of therapy she might need.

Morrow frets that she probably won't be able to scrape together the $150 it will take to send her granddaughter to summer camp, especially with other more pressing needs.

"This has been a lifesaver," Morrow said of the advocate program, which arranged for counseling services to help her granddaughter cope and helped her apply for medical insurance for the girl.

"I'm still waiting for her insurance card to come through. The dentist won't even see her until we have that."

Strasenburgh said most people do not realize that when a parent who carries the family's insurance is locked up, coverage for the family immediately ends.

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Meeting basic needs

"There was nothing before," said Bob Cooper, whose local group Ambassadors for Hope pushed the county to start the child advocate program on a trial basis in 2015.

Before that time, there was no one to make sure the children left behind had even the basics.

Cooper said prison officials previously did not even know when inmates had children, much less if those kids had stable living arrangements.

"We spent years listening to people from the criminal justice system," Cooper said, before his group became convinced that it is critical to provide early intervention for the children left behind when a parent is jailed.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, children ages 5 years and younger tend to show the greatest reaction to trauma, such as the sudden loss of a parent or caregiver. If the trauma is not treated, the same study shows, those individuals grow up to have a higher chance of ending up in prison themselves.

In Strasenburgh's program, 40 percent are under the age of 6. The children older than that come from every school district in the county.

Most mornings, Strasenburgh is on the phone nonstop, making appointments for families who need her help.

"I think I'm helping to give the children a better chance for success," Strasenburgh said, "by helping their caregiver meet their basic needs and keeping them in their initial home where they land."

In the afternoon, Strasenburgh does in-home visits and arranges for special visits at the prison for parents and their children.

"Not everyone thinks this is a good idea," said Strasenburgh. "Some people tell me they can't believe I take kids into the prison, where there is swearing and other things they shouldn't be exposed to."

She insists visitation is a way to reduce the trauma on a child, to know they can still be connected to their parent.

It also helps keep people from coming back to jail.

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Lowering recidivism

Years of research points to that outcome. The research includes a study, published in the Western Criminology Review in 2006, that stated that "a remarkably consistent association has been found between family contact during incarceration and lower recidivism rates."

"Lots of people think because someone did something bad that had them end up in jail, they are automatically a bad parent, but that's not the case," Strasenburgh said.

Try telling that to Morrow's daughter, Ashley, who is as hard on herself as anyone could be.

"I feel I'm a horrible parent," Ashley said. "It makes me sad and depressed to know what I put my daughter through."

"But never again," she vowed. "Nothing and no one will ever keep me from making her my number-one priority."

When Ashley's daughter comes in for her special one-on-one visit, she's excited to show her mom that she fits into one of her sweaters.

"I see you've been thieving my clothes while I'm gone," Ashley said with a laugh.

But perhaps having more outfits is not the only reason the adolescent girl likes wearing her mother's clothes.

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Maintaining contact

Unlike some children of incarcerated parents, Ashley's daughter sometimes gets to see her mom outside of prison as well.

That's because Ashley has a work-release job and her daughter can sometimes tag along when Morrow drives her to work.

But Morrow said she does not have the money for gas to continue the nearly 25-mile round trip it takes to drive her daughter to her work-release job every day. Ashley will need to take the bus.

That means Ashley's daughter will see her mom a whole lot less over the summer.

But right now, they are in this moment.

"I'm about to get my first check," Ashley tells her daughter, proudly.

She's already been promoted at work. Most of her income will go to pay her daily room and board in prison and her court fines, but a little will be left.

"I'm going to send it home to you," she said.

"No, keep it," said her daughter. "You need things in here."

The 10-year-old is startlingly knowing about her mother's situation.

"I honestly think she kind of deserved it," she said of her mother's sentence. "I learned that people in life make really dumb choices, sometimes."

But she also knows she is affected by it all.

"It feels like I'm doing the time, also," the girl said. "I'm encased in a life without my parents."

Exactly on the hour, Strasenburgh stands up, signaling the precious 60-minute visit is over. She allows the pair a few extra seconds for goodbye hugs.

"I love you." ''I love you more," daughter and mom call out to each other.

The girl strains to catch a glimpse of her mother one last time through the thick glass in the hallway.

But it's too late. The heavy steel door has already closed.

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