The challenges of rehabilitation for incarcerated youth are many, particularly for teenagers whose own fathers—and often grandfathers—were distant figures, in and out of jail themselves. And many of these kids already have children of their own, continuing the pattern they know only too well.
Lawyers in the Bay Area are trying to break the incarceration cycle for young parents in juvenile halls with an innovative program developed by the Youth Law Center (YLC). The “Baby Elmo Program” is a 10-session parenting course that offers locked-up teen parents not only time with their young children but also the tools necessary to learn how to parent. Under the supervision of specially trained custodial staff, young parents are provided a safe, kid-friendly environment where they have regular hands-on lessons and playtime with their children.
Launched in 2007, the Baby Elmo Program just got a much-needed boost to start a new initiative thanks to a $10,000 grant from KIND Healthy Snacks’ “Do the KIND Thing: Projects” competition with Stanford Lawyer magazine.
“When I saw Do the KIND Thing: Project, I thought this program was a perfect match because what we’re doing really is best described as ‘kind,’ ” says Bill Koski, Eric and Nancy Wright Professor of Clinical Education and director, Youth and Education Law Project at Stanford Law School and YLC board of directors chair.
“We were thrilled to receive such quality submissions, many of which looked to bring more kindness into the justice system,” says Daniel Lubetzky, founder and CEO of KIND. “The Baby Elmo Program does just that, and we are thrilled to partner with it to launch the pilot program to further the mission.”
The Baby Elmo pilot program will focus on three key barriers to developing the incarcerated young parent/child relationship. First is transportation. YLC will help to increase the consistency of visits by helping to underwrite transportation costs to juvenile hall for the children of the incarcerated youth and their caregivers, who often can’t afford the trips necessary for visitations. Second is post-incarceration support and co-parenting. YLC will develop partnerships with re-entry, family counseling, and fatherhood programs to reinforce the parent/child relationship developed during the program and also to foster the co-parent relationship, which, when strained, can impede visits. And, finally, is a celebration of successes. YLC will reinforce the gains made by program participants with celebrations by working with custodial staff to provide them with materials and funding to go the extra mile to make gatherings and parties more frequent—and special.
“Parties are important for these kids,” says Ben Richeda, YLC’s special projects manager. “It’s pretty impressive to see these guys chasing their kids around and laughing and playing with them. The transformation can be incredible.”
Started as a way to strengthen the bond between young incarcerated parents and their children, the Baby Elmo Program has become much more. Juvenile hall staff members have seen the benefits of the program in the improved behavior of the young inmates. Richeda recalls one particularly tough case of a young man, who was about 16 years old. He was getting into fights each week with rival gang members and losing his privileges. When the YLC started the program at this young man’s facility, the staff there didn’t want him to participate because of his behavior. But he completed the full 10 sessions with his 1-year-old son—and surprised everyone. “He stopped getting into fights so that he wouldn’t miss the program and he completely turned around. He started talking about doing things with his son that he’d never even done himself, like camping. He’s now out of juvenile hall, working full time and living with his son and the mother of his child. ”
Richeda regularly visits the 10 juvenile halls currently running the program (in California, Ohio, and Connecticut) and has repeatedly seen its positive impact.
“These young dads often don’t have the role models necessary to parent,” says Richeda. “We train the custodial staff to run the sessions and use Sesame Street toys and videos to help them teach. The young dads learn with their child how to communicate and interact. And we can see the changes in them, as they get through the program.”
The initial spark for the Baby Elmo Program came when Carole Shauffer, YLC’s senior director of strategic initiative, learned from Dr. Rachel Barr, an associate professor at Georgetown University, about how “Sesame Street Just Beginning” videos could help parents connect with their children. Shauffer, who was YLC’s director at the time, thought the idea had potential for incarcerated youth parents. So she and Barr developed the program through YLC specifically for those young parents.
“We know that many incarcerated young people feel abandoned by their fathers. And they are often very angry about it, but then they repeat the behavior of their fathers,” says Shauffer, who notes that the program is open to young incarcerated mothers too but that there are many more dads. “Part of my thinking was that these young parents don’t get close to their kids because they don’t know how to—they don’t know how to play with their children or how to act around them.”
Shauffer recalls one teenage boy, just 14 when he fathered a child, who at 18 years of age was struggling in juvenile hall, fighting often. He had severe learning disabilities and couldn’t read. After finishing the program with his 4-year-old daughter, and growing closer to her, he stopped getting into trouble. And, inspired by his daughter, who was learning to read during the visits, he learned to read himself.
Sometimes, change comes in unexpected ways. Koski, Richeda, and Shauffer have seen the lives of troubled teenage parents in youth detention facilities turn around with kindness and attention—and are enthusiastic about growing the Baby Elmo Program, thanks to KIND Healthy Snacks and the “Do the KIND Thing: Projects” grant.