Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.com.
By: Elizabeth Jones Valderrama
Incarceration is traumatic. It is traumatic for the individual in jail or prison, of course. It is also traumatic for the families of that individual, particularly children, who are silent sufferers. There are five million children in the United States with a parent incarcerated — that’s about one in every 14 children under the age of 18.
Can you imagine the loss that a child experiences when their mother or father is suddenly gone from their lives for a period of time?
Studies show that children of incarcerated parents are affected in a variety of capacities, including a decline in academic performance, an increase in behavioral issues, an increase in the likelihood of involvement with the criminal justice system themselves and much more. The family often struggles with how much information to give to the child. Questions such as, “Do we tell the kids where Daddy went?” and “Do we tell them why Mommy is gone?” are difficult to answer.
Children who are aware of what is happening to their parent often experience shame and worry, and the stigma that accompanies a criminal history affects the children as well. Though impacted immensely, children of incarcerated parents bear this heavy burden as a result of something they had no control over. Additionally, families are often left with less income while their loved one is away, leaving many families in financial hardship.
Offender Aid and Restoration (OAR) is here, on behalf of the community to help.
OAR works with individuals who are currently incarcerated and those returning home to Arlington, Alexandria or Falls Church after their incarceration, as well as their families.
In Arlington, OAR partners with the Arlington County Sheriff’s Department and offers six-week parenting courses, taught by trained volunteers, in the Arlington County Detention Facility. These classes discuss how to be an effective parent, with a focus on how to have difficult conversations with their children about their incarceration and how to maintain positive relationships with the child’s guardian.
Individuals who participate in the parenting class also benefit from contact visits with their children during Mother’s Day and/or Father’s Day — in fact, taking the Parenting course is required for participation in these contact visits. You can imagine how impactful it can be to hug their parent and speak face-to-face rather than through the glass of a jail visitation room, especially during these special occasions.
You can also imagine that the holidays can be an especially difficult time for families of those incarcerated.
Having a loved one away for holidays is emotionally tough and families may not be able to provide holiday gifts for their children due to financial hardship. OAR understands the need to ensure children that their parent is thinking of them during the holiday season. With the support of the community, OAR’s “Project Christmas Angel” provides holiday gifts to children of incarcerated parents in the Arlington County Detention Facility, as well as those who have been recently released and those active in OAR’s programs.
OAR volunteers wrap and distribute donated gifts. Each child receives three gifts mailed or hand delivered to their home and the gifts have handwritten gift tags from their parent. One parent from the Arlington County Detention Facility wrote to OAR about this program: “Thank you so much for providing gifts for my children this year. It breaks my heart that I am not with them and they are suffering from my mistakes. But it warms my heart to know that on Christmas morning they will have gifts from me and know that I am thinking of them every single day.”
There are several ways the community can help Project Christmas Angel and OAR is currently collecting donations. Gifts for children ages newborn to 18 are needed, while gifts for teens are especially needed. OAR is also collecting gift card donations. Denominations of $20 to $25 to places such as Target and Amazon are most helpful. We have an Amazon wish list where donations can easily be purchased online and shipped to OAR’s office. Additionally, financial donations are needed to fund the project. For more information about Project Christmas Angel visit OAR’s Events page.
OAR is so thankful to be serving a community that understands the needs and struggles of individuals currently and formerly incarcerated, as well as their families. As author Bryan Stevenson once said, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
Elizabeth Jones Valderrama is the Executive Director of Offender Aid and Restoration (OAR), serving Arlington County and the Cities of Alexandria and Falls Church, and has been on the OAR team for over 11 years. Born in Costa Rica, she relocated to Arlington in 1989. Elizabeth holds a BA in Spanish and Latin American Studies from the University of Virginia and has a Master’s Degree in Organizational Management. She is a 2009 graduate of Leadership Center for Excellence’s Signature Program and was honored as one of Arlington County’s 40 under 40 Emerging Leaders inaugural class.