News ID: 194977
Published: 0643 GMT June 18, 2017

Helping kids with incarcerated parents

Helping kids with incarcerated parents

For at least a minute or two, they shared a normal mother-and-daughter embrace. 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, wrote.

 "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.

"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.

"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.

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