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Mentoring program connects children of incarcerated parents with support

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More than 5 million children in the U.S. have had a parent in prison at some point. In Indiana, where that number is 177,000, a mentoring program aims to bolster support for those children by connecting them with adults who can provide emotional support. Megan Thompson reports as part of an ongoing series of reports called “Chasing the Dream,” which reports on poverty and opportunity in America.

Read the Full Transcript

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Every other Tuesday evening in Kokomo, Indiana, a group of kids gathers for activities at a local church’s rec center. There’s basketball, arts and crafts and games. It’s a chance for the kids to socialize and blow off some steam. But this isn’t any ordinary youth group.

  • RICK WILSON:

    You been feeling ok?

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    These kids share a common – and difficult – experience. they each have a parent in prison.

  • RICK WILSON:

    Let’s go, play ball!

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Rick Wilson has run the new leaf mentoring program since it started 8 years ago.

  • RICK WILSON:

    We have had several of the kids in the program– over half their life. And I’ve been a part of their lives for over half their life. It’s like a big family

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    10-year-old Devon Rush has been in the program for six years. His mentor is Josh Roller, a local college student. Devon’s sister Natalya’s in the program, too.

  • MENTOR:

    You ready Freddie?

  • NATALYA:

    Not yet.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Their father is in prison, serving a 30-year sentence for dealing cocaine. Their mother Jennifer has also been to prison three times – also for selling cocaine, and violating probation.

  • JENNIFER RUSH:

    My kids suffered big time. Big time, these babies suffered.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Jennifer got home from her last stint in prison in 2015. Now she’s pursuing degrees in electrical engineering and business.

  • JENNIFER RUSH:

    I’ve made a lotta mistakes. But like, I go to school full time. I’m really working on these degrees.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    and she swears she’s changed for good. But the experiences her kids have been through are still difficult for them to talk about.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    What do you miss?

  • NATALYA RUSH:

    I miss daddy.

  • DEVON RUSH:

    That we can play every day.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Do you guys remember when mommy wasn’t here?

  • DEVON RUSH:

    It’s not fun.

  • NATALYA RUSH:

    I love her so much. I just don’t want her to leave again.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    What was the hardest part about when she was gone?

  • NATALYA RUSH:

    We didn’t have a mommy. My brother was the one who mostly took care of me.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Devon and Natalya are among the 177,000 children in Indiana who have had a parent imprisoned at some point during their lives. That’s 11% of the kids in the state – one of the highest rates in the country. Experts say it can be explained in part by the state’s higher than average rate of incarceration.

  • ANGELA TOMLIN:

    We often think of these children who are left behind as invisible children.

    Angela Tomlin is a psychologist and expert in childhood development at the Indiana University School of Medicine. There are more than 5 million American kids who’ve had a parent incarcerated. And Tomlin says their needs are often forgotten.

  • ANGELA TOMLIN:

    We focus on the person who is incarcerated, we focus on how we’re going to move them along in the correction system. We spend millions and millions of dollars doing that. And we– I feel that we do not attend to the overall effect on the family, and in particular on children.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Tomlin says those effects can be profound.

  • ANGELA TOMLIN:

    Losing a parent has the potential to be a traumatic experience, and the child can have behavioral reactions and developmental concerns.

  • JENNIFER RUSH:

    Ok, it’s turning purple honey.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    One or both of Devon and Natalya’s parents have been locked up for almost their entire lives. During it all, Devon and Natalya lived in several different places…first, with Jennifer’s mother, Michelle.

  • JENNIFER RUSH:

    My mom, she has Parkinson’s. And she was taking care of them. And she– it got so bad, her Parkinson’s did. It just got too much for her.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    So a prison ministry found them a family to live with in southern Indiana, far from the familiar surroundings of Kokomo. At one point, the kids’ father got out of prison for about 7 months, so they lived with him. But he was caught with drugs again. The kids also lived temporarily with a teacher from school.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    And then, last year Devon was hospitalized for blood clots in his brain. Jennifer Rush believes it’s all had lasting effects.

  • JENNIFER RUSH:

    He has abandonment issues really bad. And then he’s had a lotta depression. He used to grin ear to ear. And then it’s just like he got really sad. And you see him sometimes. He just spaces out sometimes. And you just see he’s just really sad and depressed. And I hate to see that because it kills me.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Rush says Devon has ADHD and a speech impediment and was held back a grade in school. Natalya was also held back in school because of her maturity level.

  • JENNIFER RUSH:

    She thrives for that attention, just tryin’ to, like, “Hey, here I am.” And I think that has a lot to do with what me and her father put them through.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Rush says Natalya once asked to name the family dog “Papi” – as in daddy.

  • JENNIFER RUSH:

    She said, Can we name him Papi? ‘Cause I just want a daddy who’ll play with me and be there for me.” And it just broke my heart. So I’ve been tryin’ to play Mommy and Daddy. But I– I can’t.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    The Rush family’s story isn’t all that uncommon in this manufacturing city of about 60,000. But you wouldn’t necessarily know it. Kokomo is doing well. The unemployment rate is lower than the national average, thanks in part to a huge Chrysler plant.

  • CHUCK MCCOSKEY:

    It’s a good place to live.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Chuck McCoskey is a lifelong resident of Kokomo. He’s a drug addiction counselor and former probation officer who’s seen first-hand how incarceration affects families here. He says at the same time the city’s economy is thriving, so are drug crimes.

  • CHUCK MCCOSKEY:

    Drastic increases in terms of the substance abuse, drug trafficking, drug changing, you know, to new designer drugs.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Last year, the Kokomo area had 44 overdose deaths – almost double the number during the previous year. The number of people put in jail has increased 18% over the last two years. Local law enforcement say almost everyone they arrest has issues with drugs.

  • CHUCK MCCOSKEY:

    And when they’re arrested and taken to jail, DCS, the Department of Child Services, comes in and takes– over the children, and try to find homes for them, whether it’s with their relatives or they have to find foster homes. So you got a lot of or displaced children. And it’s horrific. You know, it just destroys the family. And I don’t want to sound like Kokomo’s the only place. But if you follow the news, it’s everywhere. It’s happening everywhere.

  • RICK WILSON:

    Are we up for a game?

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Local children’s advocates say the demand for their services is huge.

  • RICK WILSON:

    We could have a tremendously large program if we had more volunteers.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    The Tuesday-evening hang-outs that Rick Wilson organizes give children like Devon and Natalya rush a chance to hang out with other kids who have similar stories, something they don’t otherwise get a chance to do.

  • JENNIFER RUSH:

    They go to a Catholic school. It’s a wonderful school most of the parents, they’re lawyers, doctors, police officers. They don’t have, Mom and Dad’s a drug dealer, or Mom and Dad’s this, you know?

  • RICK WILSON:

    Here you go Devon, here. I’ll help you out.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Wilson says the mentors provide these kids stability.

  • RICK WILSON:

    The role primarily is someone that they can talk to, share their feelings. So whatever issues may or may not be going on with the child, the mentor’s there to help.

  • ANGELA TOMLIN:

    A mentoring program, or any program that allows a child to have an adult who they can see on a regular basis, who can give them some time, to share what their experiences have been, and who can really be experienced by that child- as reliable and consistent, and a person to be counted on, can build up strength in a child.

  • JOSH ROLLER:

    You know, you’re pretty good at Tic tac toe.

  • DEVON RUSH:

    I am.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Devon’s become extremely close to his mentor, Josh Roller, who’s worked at a local grocery store to help pay his way through school. Devon’s grandma used to take him there to see Josh working.

  • JENNIFER RUSH:

    Josh, he works. He goes to school. That shows so much. And that– that is being the influence that he needs.

  • JOSH ROLLER:

    I want this circle right there.

  • JENNIFER RUSH:

    Josh is like his big brother and best friend. And it’s just– it’s nice that at least my son has something stable in his life.

  • JOSH ROLLER AND DEVON RUSH:

    Rock paper scissors shoot.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Josh and Devon hang out once or twice a week.

  • JOSH ROLLER:

    It took a while for me to kind of get him to open up to me but as he got to know who I am and got comfortable around me he opened up and was able to just share whatever he was feeling. And the car rides got a little bit louder.

  • DEVON RUSH:

    I’ve been working on a book report, while this week.JOSH ROLLER: Would it make you feel better if I told you I had to do homework on spring break too? Yeah.JOSH ROLLER: Yeah.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Natalya’s mentor Gabby Van Alstine is an assistant professor at the nearby business school. Gabby takes Natalya at least once a week to do something special- go to the mall, get their nails done, or get something to eat.

  • JENNIFER RUSH:

    She’s a strong, independent woman. She travels. She has a wonderful job. She has a job that she loves.

  • NATALYA RUSH:

    Open now, open now, open now.

    Natalya, she can be an independent woman, like Gabby is, you know?

  • GABBY VAN ALSTINE:

    You know sometimes I take her with me on errands just really to spend time with her and help her and encourage her.

  • GABBY VAN ALSTINE:

    That’s beautiful, Natalya. I think you have a future as a fashion designer. What do you think? Then you could live in New York, or somewhere big and cool.

  • JENNIFER RUSH:

    I don’t want them to go down the life I went down. I don’t want them to choose what I chose.

  • JENNIFER RUSH:

    At least they can see that I’m trying my best to change. And I really wanna do something. But they can also see the other side that you can do stuff without getting in trouble. And these wonderful people are here to help.

Editor’s Note: Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multi-platform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by The JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.

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