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It Truly Takes a Village

COPY steps in for families facing parental incarceration

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Imagine growing up as a child with a parent behind bars. You receive no goodbye morning hugs, no nightly bedtime stories and no special birthdays with them by your side. Your only interaction is through phone calls, letters, and occasional in-person visits (many of which have been curtailed by the pandemic).

If your parent was your only caregiver and you are a minor under the age of 18, you may even be forced to move in with a complete stranger through the state foster care system.

COURTESY OF DESCHUTES COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE
  • Courtesy of Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office

It may be difficult or even painful to imagine being in such a vulnerable position as a child, yet this is the reality faced by the hundreds of children in Deschutes County. It's difficult to know the exact number of local children affected as the data is scarce, but a conservative estimate would be at least 500 kids in our community, according to Bob Moore, program director for the Central Oregon Partnerships for Youth.

Founded in 2004 from a federal grant, COPY is a mentorship program developed and offered through the Deschutes County Sheriff's Office that matches children of inmates with appropriate adult mentors. COPY usually oversees about 40-45 volunteers a year, many of whom are retirees looking to give back in their golden years.

"A lot of my kids are not in nuclear families with a lot of extended family resources, so for some of those kids, especially younger kids, the idea of having a grandparent-type person involved in their life is a huge draw for them," says Moore.

COURTESY OF DESCHUTES COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE
  • Courtesy of Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office

Such a mentorship program is essential, because the disruptive effects and psychological strain of parental incarceration may be profound and long-lasting. According to COPY program literature, feelings of fear, anxiety, anger, and experiences of depression, low self-esteem, and emotional withdrawal are all very common. It's no surprise that parental incarceration is widely recognized by mental health practitioners as a traumatic Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE).

"My kids are dealing with problems around parental incarceration and they've learned pretty quickly in life that isn't something you bring up," says Moore.

Relative to their peers fortunate enough to live in more stable family environments, these children face greater risks and barriers to success. Clinical research on this issue has concluded that children whose parents are involved in the criminal justice system are statistically more likely to struggle in school, to exhibit antisocial behavior, struggle with peer relationships and to have higher rates of unemployment and economic hardship when they grow up.

COURTESY OF DESCHUTES COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE
  • Courtesy of Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office

"When someone gets incarcerated [they] lose income, whether it's legit or non-legit income, it's income that stabilizes families," says Moore. "Oftentimes they'll lose housing, and when they're losing housing they're moving, and transportation becomes a problem, and school stability becomes a problem, meeting friends and socialization becomes a problem—it turns into a big snowball effect. I have kids who are 10 out of 10 for ACE scores. It's a huge loss."

In addition, on a national level, communities of color are disproportionately affected by higher rates of parental incarceration, with Black children 7.5 times and Hispanic children 2.3 times more likely to have a parent behind bars compared to their white counterparts. With an estimated 70,000 Oregonian children having a parent involved in the criminal justice system, our state is no exception to this national trend.

Fortunately, programs like COPY exist to help these children establish a healthy, positive bond with another adult living outside of their home. This connection can help mitigate many of the risks associated with having a parent in prison. In addition to improved self-worth, children involved in the COPY program are more likely to attend school and less likely to get in trouble once they're there. Compassion is key, with the goal being to help each child overcome the adversity associated with parental incarceration.

"It's one thing to hold adult offenders responsible for their decisions, but these are kids that haven't necessarily caused problems," says Moore. "We don't work with juvenile offenders. These are kids that have been dealt a bad set of cards...So, one of the challenges is trying to figure out some way of giving them some equal opportunities."

To become a mentor, interested volunteers over the age of 21 need to submit an online application, complete a fingerprint-based background check, reference checks, and drug screen, maintain a safe driving record, and attend a half-day training class.

COURTESY OF DESCHUTES COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE
  • Courtesy of Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office

Once accepted into the program, they will be matched with a child on the program's waiting list and spend two to three hours of contact time with them per week for a minimum of one year. Both volunteers and children are interviewed about their interests and backgrounds to help create meaningful matches.

Ultimately, every mentoring partnership is unique and tailored to the needs of the individual child, with some mentors offering academic assistance with others focusing on exploring new activities. Sometimes, it's just about hanging out and grabbing a pizza together on a Friday night, just like any ordinary kid. Mentors can provide consistency, caring and hope that may help keep children on the right track, and relationships often last for years, well beyond the program's end date.

"Again, that kind of support, having that person for a kid that doesn't have that in any other place in their life, is a key piece for sure."

The next training session will be offered April 10. To get involved, contact Bob Moore at 541-388-6651 or email COPY@deschutescounty.org.

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