Muppet with a parent in prison reaches out to at-risk kids

Fuzzy, colorful and with sing-song voices that preschoolers like, “Sesame Street” characters have a history of bringing up serious subjects. A new Muppet, Alex, has a father behind bars.

Incarceration is the latest tough topic being addressed on the PBS show. Natural disasters, divorce and military deployment have also been tackled on the program and through its online Sesame Street Tool Kit.

“It’s pretty great,” said Margaret Hoyer, family services manager for the state Department of Corrections. She has a firm answer for critics who have said on talk radio or in news reports that “Sesame Street” is making it seem normal to have a parent in prison.

Think of the children, she said.

“There is very little that’s normal about corrections for children. They are going to absorb that fear and blame, the stigma attached to it,” Hoyer said. Knowing that children who have had parents in prison are far more likely than others to land behind bars themselves, Hoyer said “we would like to break that cycle.”

Alex, the blue-haired hoodie-wearing Muppet, misses his dad but doesn’t want people knowing where his father is. Hoyer noted that the character is a “tween,” not a young child. “That’s the hardest population to address,” she said. “For older kids, nothing is worse than being different and having people know about that.”

“Sesame Street” hopes to reach an astonishing number of children who share Alex’s plight.

According to a recent report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, there are 2.7 million children — 1 in 28 American kids — with a parent behind bars. Twenty-five years ago it was one in 125 kids. The report, titled “Collateral Costs,” estimates that nearly 70 percent of children who have had a parent incarcerated will someday spend time in prison.

At Matthew House in Monroe, Linda Paz sees those children every day. The facility near the Monroe Correctional Complex is operated by the nonprofit Simon of Cyrene Society. It provides overnight stays, transportation and other services to families of inmates. It’s been doing that work for more than 30 years.

“This is probably the least talked about population,” said Paz, executive director of Matthew House. She sees the struggles of mothers who make long drives to visit partners behind bars, and who bring their children.

“Someone told me ‘Sesame Street’ was going to do that. It’s the most incredible thing, for someone to put a face on it,” Paz said. “These kids live a lie. They don’t want anybody to know they’ve got somebody in prison.”

Paz recalled one very small boy telling her he was “going to have lunch with my daddy who works on the hill with the big lights.”

Matthew House, which provides van rides to six prisons around the state, had 4,842 people come through its doors in 2012. The charity served more than 6,000 meals to family members on their way to visit inmates. One mission is simply providing a place where parents and children can talk freely.

“It’s a safe place for everybody, the smallest child to a parent, to come in and sit down without fear,” Paz said. “When they get together, there are no lies. They are accepted just where they are.”

For a dozen years, Kerri Kallay watched her children deal with having a father in prison. The Olympia woman is now on a statewide family council with the Department of Corrections.

Her husband served 12 years for armed robbery, four of them at the Monroe complex. Since his release he has worked in computer-aided drafting, a skill he learned in prison. The family lives in Olympia.

The three children in their blended family are 14, 17 and 19. Kallay remembers driving from Olympia to Monroe, and taking a ferry to McNeil Island to visit her husband. When the children were small, it was hard to have them sit still in visiting rooms. As teens, the kids sometimes didn’t want to go on visits that took them away from friends.

Kallay worked with prison officials so that her husband could hear teacher conferences by phone.

Preserving family bonds doesn’t just benefit an inmate. “Research says if you can increase visits and increase these relationships, recidivism will go down,” said Hoyer, the corrections official.

In other words, improving life for the families of inmates keeps us all safer. Adding a Muppet to that effort can only help.

Kallay’s daughter was 4 when her husband went to prison. “From my children’s perspective, it has been tough. They did pretty well,” she said.

“Our 14-year-old son, when his dad first came home, he was used to being the guy of the house. Things are going well now. Our middle child just graduated from high school. Our 19-year-old is in community college,” she said.

Her husband used visits behind bars as cautionary lessons. “He would talk to the kids about decisions they were making. He’d make anybody who visited take a bite of his disgusting baloney sandwich, and say ‘If you really hate this food, don’t ever come here,’” Kallay said.

“There were a lot of tough feelings we had to work through for a lot of years. Your child is conflicted. They love their parent, but they’re so angry at them for not being there,” she said. “This Muppet character is bringing up things so few kids talk about. I’m happy they’re trying to get this out there, so kids realize they’re not alone.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

Learn more

Matthew House is a nonprofit Monroe facility that helps children and families of inmates. Information: www.matthewhousemonroe.org.

The “Sesame Street” program “Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration” is online at: www.sesamestreet.org/parents/topicsandactivities/toolkits/incarceration.

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