Elmo, Cookie Monster open arms to Winnipeg kids with parents behind bars

Elmo and the Cookie Monster helped make kids feel at home in the Millennium Library Saturday as part of Strengthening Families Affected by Incarceration Day.

Sesame Street family event helps kids face challenges of having parent in prison or jail

Families and kids gathered at the Millennium Library in Winnipeg Saturday for Strengthening Families Affected by Incarceration Day events. (CBC)

Elmo and the Cookie Monster helped make kids feel at home at the Millennium Library Saturday as part of Strengthening Families Affected by Incarceration Day.

Louise Leonardi, executive director of Canadian Families and Corrections Network, said the event was meant to give families with a loved one behind bars a chance to meet and learn from each other.

"It's very traumatic for kids, so we want to explain that process to them so that they are prepared when they do go to an institution to visit," she said.

The CFCN, the Winnipeg Foundation and the Millennium Library donated incarceration kits to the families that included Jeffrey Goes to Jail and the Sesame Street-created Little Children, Big Challenges. The books and kits are designed to help kids better understand and cope with the reality of having a parent in jail or prison.

Families and kids were given tool kits with items and books meant to help children better understand and prepare for the challenges that come with having a parent behind bars. (CBC)

Jeffrey Goes to Jail in particular touches on the hurdles children face during visitation, such as the intimidation of going through jail security and the emotional impact of having to say goodbye, Leonardi said.

"On the outside it looks like a lot of fun, but it's quite serious; the topic and information that we deliver."

'Half of the income walks into jail'

There are a lot of different issues that families face when one parent is incarcerated, including the financial stress that comes to rest on the other partner, Leonardi said.

"Half of the income walks into jail, so you're expected to run your house and pay your bills on one income, as well as look after all the children's needs and so forth," Leonardi said, adding trips to visit the family member in jail, or to pay for their phone cards, also adds pressure.

But the costs go far beyond money. Some families may have to move to be closer to the incarcerated parents, which can have negative impacts on the lives of the children.

"You might have to start a new school, you might have to make new friends and we have also found out that there are scholastic implications and literacy implications," Leonardi said.

A wee one flips through the pages of a book and meets a police officer with mom at the event. (CBC)

Children with an incarcerated parent are roughly two to four times more likely to get swept into a life of crime as they get older, according to Leonardi.

"Families of crime generally have lower literacy rates," Leonardi said, adding that point helped the organization decide to host the event in a free community library.

"We want everyone to understand that these children are completely innocent, always, of their parents' choices. So in a school situation, in a community situation, we want to make sure that they are looked after and they are accepted and treated with dignity," she said.

The Canadian Families and Corrections Network estimates that the lives of about 8,000 children in Winnipeg have been impacted by a parent involved in crime.