Children

‘Children are always innocent’: Charity helps families affected by incarceration

Elmo, Cookie Monster on hand for book event at Dartmouth library

A child eats cake and colours Elmo cut-outs with HRP Victim Services at the library.   Sandra Hannebohm

Families can now borrow the books Jeffrey Goes to Jail and Jeffrey’s Out of Jail from the Alderney Gate Public Library to help their children cope with the imprisonment of a family member and that person’s reintegration after prison.

Children and adults lined up to get a photo with Elmo and Cookie Monster at the library on Saturday for an event announcing the new book additions.

“Children are always innocent,” said Louise Leonardi, executive director of the Canadian Families and Corrections Network (CFCN), the organization behind the event. “If their parents decide to pick up a gun or sell drugs, that’s never a kid’s fault.” 

Leonardi said CFCN is the only organization in Canada whose sole mandate is to support families and children affected by incarceration. She said the Sesame Street network sent them many “Little Children, Big Challenges” educational kits, and since there weren’t enough to send to every family, they decided to organize library events across the country.

Louise Leonardi set out free books and toys for the families.   Sandra Hannebohm

It was a collaborative effort. Mennonite Central Committee Canada funded the event, while Woozles, a children’s bookstore, donated books and toys. A support group called Mothers Offering Mutual Support (MOMS) volunteered to promote the event and set up tables. CFCN donated DVDs, guides and other storybooks to the Dartmouth library. 

Children and guardians line up for a photo with Cookie Monster and Elmo.   Sandra Hannebohm

Leonardi kicked off the event by describing the difference between the life of a child looking up at the stars and that of a child seeing their father taken away in a police car.

“What’s a child’s life supposed to be like?” she asked.

By creating library events to engage children coping with the incarceration of a family member, the CFCN hopes to address two major challenges –– literacy and the likelihood of a child following in a relative’s footsteps.

According to the Literacy and Policing Project, an 18-month study led by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, offenders are three times more likely than the rest of the population to have literacy problems.

Leonardi wants children to understand the importance of the library as a community hub.

“By bringing them into a library event, we want them to get attached to the library, to understand that it’s free and it’s not like it used to be,” she said.

CFCN estimates about 3,800 children in the Halifax area are affected by crime. Those children are more likely to follow in their parents’ footsteps, Leonardi noted.

Correctional Service Canada estimates that the children of fathers sentenced to a federal prison are two to four times more likely to be in conflict with the law than other children.

Leonardi said reintegration is the next step after a parent leaves prison. “We want those people to come back strong, as a good neighbour. How do we do that? Strengthening the family that they’re going to come back to is part of that.”

Information resources from MOMS, Mainline Needle Exchange, Stepping Stone, Halifax Regional Police Victim Services and other groups were on display Saturday. Parents and children were also invited to take home free books and borrow the new resources at the library.

Jeffrey Goes to Jail and support resources were on display for families.   Sandra Hannebohm