At first, the children who visit Los Angeles County’s largest women’s jail are confused or even angry.
Their mothers can’t hold them or take their hands. A hard glass partition is in the way.
But then the words flow through the speakers on the wall, and the sound of Mom’s voice triggers a change. The children begin to relax.
Those words alone can have a profound effect on the well-being of children of incarcerated parents, advocates say. Many children enter foster care as a result of their parents’ incarceration.
On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors agreed to boost funding for the county’s Incarcerated Parents Project, which aims to decrease emotional trauma of children who are separated from their parents as a result of incarceration.
The program is a collaboration between the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and a nonprofit organization that coordinates such visits — Friends Outside in Los Angeles County (FOLA) — as well as the sheriff’s department, which oversees the county’s jails.
DCFS works with about 3,600 children whose parents are incarcerated, according to a recent report.
“Just because a parent is incarcerated doesn’t mean the child of the incarcerated shouldn’t see the parent,” said Edie Shulman, assistant director for the Los Angeles County Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse (ICAN).
ICAN recently compiled a report for Los Angeles County leaders, proposing that the Incarcerated Parents Project be extended for three years, and receive an annual budget of $104,218. The program has operated at an annual budget of $68,786 since it began in 2009.
New funding from the state will go toward hiring a new director and greater promotion of the program among incarcerated parents, Shulman added. Caseworkers with FOLA help children and families connect with incarcerated parents, and those who have recently exited incarceration. The organization also runs an after school program and has job training services for parents after incarceration.
In 2018, DCFS and FOLA worked together to complete 133 visits by children in foster care to their incarcerated parents in L.A. County. So far this year, there have been 89 completed visits.
The target population includes incarcerated parents with a child between the ages of 0 and 21, according to DCFS. The family must have a current investigation or open case with DCFS and the mother must not have a “stay away” or restraining order in criminal or dependency court.
But despite positive impact on children and parents, many logistical challenges remain for those visits to take place. Weekday visitation hours are limited from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., which makes it difficult for school-aged children to visit.
“It can be very expensive for a family to get to prisons,” said Mary Weaver, FOLA’s executive director. She said that visits with parents during the week are better than regular visiting hours on the weekend.
“Public visiting day, at least in L.A. County, makes it hard to have a quality visit,” she said. “The irony is that there’s been research for a long time that has found that inmates who maintain a family bond are less likely to return to prison. The children and families are the overlooked commodities many times.”
Celina Ruiz, a caseworker with FOLA, coordinates visits exclusively inside Los Angeles County’s women’s jail, known as the Century Regional Detention Center. She said she prepares mothers for the visits by guiding them on what to say to their children, how to remain positive and to not make promises. She oversees about 30 visits a month.
“Children, because some of them are confused, they don’t know if their mothers are OK,” Ruiz said, “Some people don’t think it’s a good idea for their children to be in that environment. But for the children, knowing their mothers have somewhere to sleep helps them.”
For about an hour, the children tell their mothers about school, and share other news. For those children who have been placed in foster homes, the visits offer one of the few times when they also can see siblings placed in different homes. Sometimes, a mother is allowed to read a book to their child. The few minutes together can go a long way, for both child and Mom, Ruiz said.
“The visits give them hope,” Ruiz said of the mothers. “I know some of them change when they get those visits. For the most part, they behave better. They are being respectful to staff because they want those visits. If the visits continue, you can see their relationships improve.”
And in most cases, the bonds become stronger.
“I know for the mothers, a lot of them maintain the relationship with the children,” after release, Ruiz said. “They are motivated to go to programs, get their high school diploma, or parenting classes.”