Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Sesame Street Reaches Out to Children with Incarcerated Parents

Written by Katy Otto
Photos courtesy of Sesame Street
Incarceration is not an issue we talk about in public nearly enough. For some of us, we have the luxury of not thinking about prison on a daily basis. But keeping the community and personal impact of incarceration in the shadows does a disservice to us all. Especially the children of those on the inside.

I was heartened to hear that Sesame Street created a program series for children of incarcerated people. I thought this was a brave and important step forward for a media company with broad, expansive reach. I spoke with Dr. Jeanette Betancourt, Senior Vice President for Outreach and Education Practices at Sesame Workshop, about the development of Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration series.

Katy: How did you first conceive of the idea for the Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration series?

Dr. Betancourt: Little Children, Big Challenges is a whole comprehensive initiative we have for children’s resilience. We look at the biggest challenges children have nowadays and ask what the challenges are, where children’s needs aren’t being met, and look at issues that aren’t being addressed from a child’s point of view. When we found that one in twenty-eight children has an incarcerated parent, we knew this was a big issue. Our mission is to really help all children globally to reach their highest potential. We are always looking at where there are needs of children and where there is a lack of information. We did a series on divorce, a series on grief, and a comprehensive military families initiative.

Katy: Did you work with other organizations to develop the resources?

Dr. Betancourt: We worked with a team of advisors. That continues to be part of our model. We knew we weren’t the experts so we started off with a literature review and then had a network of people working with children of incarcerated parents, caregivers, and incarcerated parents. We created prototypes of the materials and went out to test those with children of incarcerated parents.

Katy: I appreciated the choice to depict people of different races and both mothers and fathers as incarcerated parents. Was that a conscious choice? What kind of discussions went into that?

Dr. Betancourt: It is a conscious choice. We wanted to represent a number of different scenarios for different caregivers and as many family dynamics as possible.

Katy: What has the response to this program been like so far? Has there been any kind of pushback?

Dr. Betancourt: We had a launch for this program at the White House at an event called Champions of Change. These individuals were involved with providing services for caregivers and children of incarcerated parents. Being part of that was amazing. We want to provide collective community to these children. What we are hearing is that finally there is a representation of a child’s point of view, and that these resources can open up a dialogue about shame and stigma associated with incarceration.

Katy: A few folks I spoke with mentioned they would love to see this kind of programming on the mainstream PBS broadcast, to help further erase stigma for children of incarcerated people. Is that something that could be in the cards, if there was enough public support?

Dr. Betancourt:
Part of our community engagement and outreach model is a targeted initiatives programthis is part of that. We have an app online and materials for both children and caregivers. Our model is to keep those separate from our programming because we think we are really integrating those materials in a much more permanent fashion. We are working with the family court system to make sure these materials are there, and we try to develop them in ways that can be easily incorporated into other programs.

Katy: Have children of incarcerated people gotten to use the tools yet that you know of? Any response? Have you had any feedback from incarcerated parents?

Dr. Betancourt: We’re getting lots of emails and responses from individuals who are older and are expressing that they wished they had seen a more positive, open representation of incarceration like this in their youth. They’d wished they had had such resources. We haven’t heard from incarcerated parents but we are hearing from corrections officers, therapists, and early childhood program staff.

Katy: Is there anything else planned for the rollout of the program that you would like readers to know about?

Dr. Betancourt: We would like readers to know the wealth of the resources. There is a wealth of resources and they are also available bilingually. We are happy for you to spread the word, and want these to be available wherever there could be a child with an incarcerated parent.

Check back tomorrow for Katy's interview with a formerly incarcerated mother for her take on the Sesame Street's Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration series.

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