Pittsburgh Child Guidance Foundation addresses issues, solutions for children of incarcerated parents

'What I want everyone to understand is their mistakes are not our mistakes.'

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When Ronnell Anderson was 7 years old, her father was sent to prison for three years.

During his incarceration, she kept a close bond with him, having contact visits and receiving phone calls, letters and drawings from him. Even away from home, he remained a disciplinarian for her.

As the senior social work major at Slippery Rock University got older, she became involved in the movement to help children of incarcerated parents, and Thursday spoke as part of a group marking the 10th anniversary of the Pittsburgh Child Guidance Foundation's work in advocating for those children.

The foundation on Thursday released its third report, identifying a number of problems it found in researching the issue and some solutions already obtained.

According to the report, 12 to 15 percent of children in Allegheny County will experience the incarceration of at least one parent during childhood.

Through the decade of study, more than 1,000 people were interviewed through surveys, focus groups and workshops, according to Claire Walker, executive director of the foundation.

Officials found a lack of services for the affected community, as well as a lack of policies and procedures in law enforcement, corrections and the courts to ensure children remained connected to their incarcerated parent.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Family Court Judge Kim Berkeley Clark, who spoke Thursday, said research shows it is in the best interest of children to have contact and visitation with their parents. Moreover, she said an incarcerated parent has the same legal rights as a parent who is not jailed.

Because of that, she has been involved in efforts to rewrite parts of the Pennsylvania benchbook -- a resource used by judges -- to include information on the topic. In addition, the judge said, training has been offered for corrections officials and law enforcement to follow certain protocols to protect the parental bond even during arrest.

Another significant improvement cited by Ms. Walker is the creation of "Gwen's Den" in the lobby of the Allegheny County Jail. Volunteers in the community created a space in the jail -- named after former Pittsburgh Police Commander Gwen Elliott -- for children waiting to visit their parents.

The space, which Ms. Walker compared to a "mini children's museum," allows children and their caregivers a place to bond and play while sometimes waiting as long as an hour for visitation, instead of sitting in a stressful, sterile space with nothing to do.

For Ms. Anderson, she spent the summer working as an intern on what is called the "Hear Me" project, in which a dozen children were interviewed about how their parents' incarceration affected them.

"They all basically said ... 'What our parents do has nothing to do with our decisions. What I want everyone to understand is their mistakes are not our mistakes,' " she said.

Those audio recordings will be used by the Allegheny County Jail to help inmates in parenting classes and to prepare them for release and re-entry.

Ms. Walker said that after 10 years focusing on this issue, the foundation in 2013 will move on to its next major issue, which has not yet been identified.

Still, she expects the good work completed thus far -- in the courts, Department of Human Services, at the jail and across the state -- to continue.

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Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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