Texas has some of the safest cities in the US — but the fourth highest incarceration rate of any state. In part, this is because it was one of the first states to establish a “three strikes” law, which (combined with the disastrous “war on drugs”) helped triple the prison population during the 80s and 90s. Things are getting better now, but there’s still a long way to go.
In the mean time, it’s conservatively estimated that over 4,600 children in Travis County alone have an incarcerated parent. The average term served by parents in state prison is 80 months, and over 60% of parents in state prison (and over 80% in federal prison) are held over a hundred miles from their families.
When the government separates children from their parents because of military deployment, the DoD provides family support. When Child Protective Services separate children from parents, there is follow-up support aimed at reuniting the family. When parents are arrested and jailed… well, that’s just tough luck for the kids, apparently. Conservatives talk a lot about “family values” and how kids in single parent homes are more likely to grow up to be criminals, but conservative politicians don’t seem too keen on doing anything about it.
But of course, it’s worse than that. Texas courts are far more likely to sentence you to jail if you’re not perceived as white, and poverty disproportionately affects black and Hispanic families, meaning that the kids whose parents end up in jail are more likely to be from poor families who will have trouble looking after them. And it’s common for the family to try and hide the situation, for fear that CPS will take the child.
Earlier this year I heard about The Seedling Foundation from a friend. They’re a local charity which organizes mentoring arrangements with children challenged by parental incarceration. The idea is simple: each week, you take an hour out of your day, and sit and chat with your assigned mentee. (I hate that word, but I’ve been unable to come up with a better one.)
You meet at the kid’s school during lunch break. Your job is to be someone they can talk to, an adult friend who can be a positive role model. You need to be trustworthy and reliable, there every week, on time. Other than that, it’s a pretty easy gig, at least at first. You’re matched up with a school in your area, then matched with a child by the school’s counselor. Participation is completely voluntary on the part of the child, and if you have an age preference regarding who you think you would relate best to, they will try to accommodate it. Seedling also provides a half-day training program, and handles the obligatory background checks. When difficult conversation topics start to crop up, they have advice and material to help.
I’ve had three chat sessions with my assigned mentee at this stage, and it’s been great. We seem to be a good match, the school counselor did her job well. So if you’re reading this, in the Austin area, and potentially interested in taking part in the program, there’s a list of unmatched children in search of a mentor, and I’ve got a PDF of info I can forward.