May 4, 2017

Breaking the cycle of generational incarceration

The New York nonprofit Hour Children gives families affected by incarceration a second chance

For more than 30 years, Sister Tesa Fitzgerald has supported families of incarcerated women in the New York City area. Photo courtesy of Hour Children

It’s been a little more than 30 years since I handed my first foster child, Nate, back to her mother.

Nate (pronounced NAT-tay) was about 15 months old when I took her in. Like any toddler, she was adorable, bubbly, and curious. But there was a big difference with Nate. It wasn’t the way she looked, or the way she acted. It was where she spent much of those first two years of her life: in a prison nursery.

After about a year of living with me, Nate’s mother, Turanda, completed her two-year jail sentence at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York. The joy on Turanda’s face was one of the most pure, humbling things I’ve experienced in my 20 years as a nun. I decided then and there I was going to become a licensed foster mom for children with incarcerated mothers, and provide a home to children who need it–and hope to both them and their mothers.

So many people lament over children getting “lost in the system.” For children of incarcerated mothers, their lives are governed by three critical hours: the hour their mom is arrested, the hour they visit their mother in prison and the more hopeful hour of reunification.

And so, in 1986, Hour Children was unofficially founded. Our guiding principle was simple: Children who grow up with their mothers are significantly more likely to become successful, independent adults. We wanted to break the cycle of generational incarceration among youth–and recidivism among their mothers.

We officially registered as a nonprofit in 1992; now we operate a prison nursery in New York, at the very prison Turanda walked out of 30 years ago–one of only nine states in the country to operate a prison nursery. We counsel women inside of prison, upon release, and over the longer term through programs like transitional housing, job training, co-parenting classes, child care programs and mental health counseling.

Hour Children is about raising dignity, something that’s lost in many people’s lives; we’re putting it back in the center.

Our recidivism rate hovers around 3 percent–versus the New York statewide average of 40 percent. And in the past year, all of the children in our program advanced to the next grade level–in that time, we provided supportive housing to 199 women and children, facilitated mentorship for 76 children and helped 132 formerly incarcerated women qualify for livable-wage jobs. We run two thrift stores in Queens; 90 percent of our employees at those stores are former clients.

What I’m most proud of, though, can be summed up in a few words: dispelling labels, redemption and hope. Hour Children is about raising dignity, something that’s lost in many people’s lives; we’re putting it back in the center. There’s little that’s more humanizing than the bond between a mother and her child.

Of the hundreds of children who have been part of Hour Children and with whom we remain in contact, we know of only one who has followed his mother to prison.

Hour Children was recently one of five nonprofits across the country to receive a $20,000 grant from Allstate to further its work as part of The Renewal Awards, presented by Allstate and The Atlantic.

We’re extremely proud of the work we’ve done, and we’re deeply honored to receive the coveted Allstate Youth Empowerment Award. But Hour Children’s efforts are just the tip of the iceberg. As a society, we must support the opportunity for children to bond with their incarcerated parents. And as a society, we must be more willing to giving people–particularly those previously incarcerated–a second chance and the support they need to get back on their feet. The Renewal Awards are given to organizations whose programs are replicable, and we hope this recognition inspires others to create similar programs around our country.

If we do that, I think we’ll all be amazed with the positive ripple effect we make. A ripple effect that can change the life a mother and her child create together. A ripple effect that can alter the trajectory of communities and future generations. And a ripple effect that can spread the simple belief that it’s not one’s past actions, but rather future actions, that define her.

The Renewal Project is made possible by Allstate.

This post originally appeared in HuffPost.

Sister Tesa Fitzgerald

Sister Tesa Fitzgerald is the Founder and Executive Director of Hour Children, based in Queens, New York
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