BY MIKE JAMES
THE DAILY INDEPENDENT
FLATWOODS Every Friday morning, a group of about 20 children meets in a classroom at Russell McDowell Intermediate School to talk about their parents.
It’s not the complaining you would expect; the children aren’t upset because their mothers make them eat broccoli or their fathers order them to do chores.
Rather, they are upset because one or both of their parents isn’t at home to provide the care, guidance and nurturing most children take for granted.
What the children have in common is a parent locked up in jail or prison. They know their parent is in trouble. They’ve seen convicts on television, so they know prison is a bad place to be.
Another thing they have in common is a sense of confusion about why their parent is behind bars and a sense of loss because their mother or father can’t cheer them at ball games, can’t praise them when they bring home good grades, and can’t tuck them in at night.
Some blame themselves.
Two faculty members at Russell McDowell saw their distress and pledged to form a support group and help the children work through their emotional turmoil.
“We’ve seen what it does to families. We’ve seen the struggles they go through and we think school is a good path to get to these kids,” said Kristi Whittaker, a special education assistant who, with counselor Jalina Wheeler, launched the support group last fall.
They christened the group KRUSH, which stands for Kids Rising Up through Support and Healing.
The group is open to children who have a parent currently in jail or has been locked up in the past.
“Children with incarcerated parents have unique circumstances other students don’t face,” said Bev Sharp, chairman of the FIVCO Reentry Council, which works to return former inmates successfully to their communities.
Whittaker is a former member of the council and Sharp provided her guidance in forming the group.
“They need someone they can trust to talk to. They can find it hard to talk to their peers. (The group) provides a safe space, especially when they have the opportunity to talk with other kids in the same situation,” Sharp said.
Whittaker and Wheeler started out with a handful of children and the number has grown as more find out about the group.
Embarrassment was an issue at first, but the teachers and children talked that out and now students are drawn to the group when they find out there are caring teachers and others with whom they can share their troubles, Wheeler said.
What ties the children together is a common fear — that their troubled parent will get in trouble with drugs, that their mother will get another boyfriend, that their parent will leave them.
The children often blame themselves. “In one of our first meetings, we did a questionnaire and the kids wrote that they felt they were to blame for their parents being incarcerated, maybe because they didn’t listen or didn’t behave,” Wheeler said.
Under that kind of pressure, children tend to get in trouble at school and clash with other students, and labor under a deep sense of sadness, the teachers learned.
They are trying in their group sessions to reassure children they are not at fault and don’t have to let their parent’s transgressions define their own lives.
The group can help prevent the children themselves from getting into trouble by following their parent’s bad example and drifting into drug abuse and crime, Sharp said.
Some of the children have made enough emotional progress that they are ready and willing to visit their parents in jail again, Whittaker said. “We can see the change since the beginning. They raise their hands to share, and one of the things they share is that they’re going to visit their parents.”
That is a good thing, according to Wheeler. “We want them to have their parents in their lives. This is not a gotcha to parents. We want them to know kids can be good and still see their parents,” she said.Most of the children live with grandparents or other family members and for most of them, drug abuse is the issue that put their parents behind bars. Participation in the group requires permission of their guardians.
Whittaker and Wheeler plan to host sessions for family caregivers and guardians, who they say need support, too.
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