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Sesame Street gives voice, resources to children of incarcerated parents

Rebecca Shlafer, Ph.D., second from left, visits with Julie Poehlmann from University of Wisconsin and Sesame Street friends at the White House to discuss the Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration program.

This week, Sesame Workshop announced its newest initiative: Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration, which will provide educational resources for caregivers and children impacted by parental incarceration.As I’ve talked to colleagues and friends about this project and its upcoming release, I’ve been surprised by the reactions. Their responses have ranged from, “Wow, how great that Sesame Street is tackling this issue!” to “Is that really what our world has come to, the Muppets’ parents are now in jail?”

Combined, these reactions summarize important points about this issue. Parental incarceration is a large and growing problem in our country, but it’s a topic that has not garnered much attention from either scientific or media communities, and many people’s initial reactions to the topic are generally negative.

In 2007, over 1.75 million children under the age of 18 had a parent in a state or federal prison in the U.S., with a disproportionate number from racial minority backgrounds. Indeed, black children were almost eight times more likely than white children and nearly three times more likely than Hispanic children to have a parent in prison. Estimates now suggest that 1 in 15 black children in the U.S. have a parent currently in prison.

Today, there are more children with an incarcerated parent than are diagnosed with autism or juvenile diabetes. Despite this, parental incarceration and its effects on children and families has received relatively little attention from scholars, practitioners, and policy makers. As a consequence we have no evidenced-based, developmentally appropriate resources to respond to the needs of children with incarcerated parents.

The new Sesame Street resources bring national attention to a sensitive issue, through the familiar and friendly Muppet messages. Through these resources, young children are provided with age-appropriate information about what incarceration is and key messages aimed at reducing the anxiety, sadness and confusion they may experience when a parent is in prison. In addition, the resources equip parents and caregivers with information about what their child may be experiencing and suggestions for communication and support.

For many of us who study this topic, such resources provide an incredible opportunity to raise awareness and change public perception of this growing public health issue.

Over the next several months, I will be working with local advocates from public and private agencies and organizations to provide the resources to as many children and families affected by incarceration as possible.

Ultimately, our goal is to initiate a statewide conversation and change the way think about, respond to, and support Minnesota children with incarcerated parents.

Read the press release about this project.

You can read more about Shlafer’s research partner on her project involving the Sesame Street materials on the University of Wisconsin website.

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