When a parent must spend time in prison, their children can be devastated. Programs are underway in Milwaukee to create a sense of hope among that next generation.
Life is busy for Darius Phifer. He goes to school for business – aspiring to run his own non-profit someday, and he’s known to write screenplays in his spare time. But Phifer has a harsh past. He’s spent time in prison for drug possession and armed robbery. It meant leaving behind his daughter and two sons. Phifer recall the first time one son visited him in prison.
"He was four or five at the time, and when it was time for him to go, he asked, can I go with him? I told him that I wouldn't be able to. To say he was hurt, would be to minimize it. He cried, he screamed, he kicked, he had a fit. It probably was the moment that I told myself, I wasn't going to send myself or them through that again," Phifer says.
While Phifer finished serving his sentences long ago and has turned around his life, that son followed in his footsteps. He has committed crimes and spent time behind bars.
"He's even told me that maybe if I was there, he wouldn't have turned out the way he did and did some of the things that he's done, if I would've been home," Phifer says.
There is a good chance that a child of an incarcerated parent will also someday spend time behind bars, according to Victor Barnett. He started Running Rebels, a group on Milwaukee’s north side that offers young men and woman positive activities. Barnett says about half of those young people are missing a parent.
"I think one of the deepest things that I heard from a young person when I talked to him about getting his driver's license—he said, 'Why should I? I won't even be alive when I'm twenty-one years old.' And there's so many young people that feel that way, because they didn't get inspired by their parents," Barnett says.
Barnett says that’s why Running Rebels keeps plenty of staff available, to fill the void.
At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Doctor Julie Poehlmann has spent years studying the risks a child faces when a parent goes to prison. While the child may eventually follow suit, she says the possibility is not as great as the public might believe.
"They are at risk for experiencing things like school failure, truancy, behavior problems, conduct disorders, getting in trouble with the law when they're older. But, these risks appear to be only about twice as great as other kids," Poehlmann says.
In 2013, the children’s television show Sesame Street asked Poehlmann for advice. It was creating a packet of books and videos for caretakers who are working with children while their parents are incarcerated. In one episode that resulted, a muppet named Alex describes life while his father is in jail, and familiar characters offer him support.
"You know what I learned? It's never the kid's fault. Grown-ups make their own decisions, and sometimes they make the wrong choice. I guess, but some kid said that I'm going to grow up to be just like my dad. Who said that? Some kids from school. They teased me and said I'm going to go to jail someday too. That is terrible. And it's not okay. Whenever someone teases you like that, you can always come to me or another grown-up," the characters in the video say.
UW-Madison is studying the results of the Sesame Street project, to learn if it’s been helpful.
Meanwhile, Running Rebels in Milwaukee continues its one-on-one work with young people missing a parent. Victor Barnett says the goal is to instill hope.
"We have hope in most people because of our upbringing. We see it and we get it from our parents every day. But, if a young person has no hope, I think that puts most people in the position of doing negative things, doing things that don't show that they care about the future. So, I think we as a society have to find a way to put hope into people, and let them know that there is a chance for you to be successful, and for your kids to be successful as well," Barnett says.
Barnett says for some youth, it can take years to undo the damage of a parental absence, so persistence is essential.