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GO KIDS Articles

Inmates' kids: Color them blue but better

By Jemimah Noonoo, Staff Writer
Houston Chronicle
February 6, 2009, 2:30 PM
"A Book For Kids"
For more information: www.4theloveofkids.com

As a U.S. district judge, Vanessa Gilmore has sent people to prison. As a family therapist, Janice Beal has counseled the children these prisoners leave behind.

Together, the two have come up with a new way to reach these youths and help them deal with behavioral problems common among their peers: depression, truancy and sexual promiscuity.

“They really are a population with special needs,” said Gilmore, who has been a federal judge in Houston since 1994.

“They feel this extra guilt and extra burden about something that doesn’t have anything to do with them,” she added. “They’re a victim, and they didn’t do anything.”

About six years ago, Beal, also of Houston, began noticing an increase in children of the incarcerated. In their counseling sessions, she found them sullen and reluctant to share their feelings about having a jailed parent.

Encouraging the children to communicate in different ways, she asked them to keep journals and write poems, anything to keep their hands busy and to express themselves nonverbally. Beal also turned to her longtime friend Gilmore.

The judge didn’t have exact local statistics. But nationally, 1.7 million to 2 million children are believed to have a parent behind bars, and several studies indicate that 70 percent of these offspring will end up in jail themselves.

Beal and Gilmore collaborated on a new tool for reaching these kids. Their efforts resulted in A Boy Named Rocky, a 17-page coloring book that was published last year and is now used by about 10 social-service organizations.

The story line has Rocky beginning to notice that his mom is having trouble paying the bills. One day after school he learns that his mother has received a two-year jail sentence for selling and using drugs. His grandmother becomes his guardian.

Angry with himself, his mother and his father who left home and never returned, Rocky lets his grades drop.

But he eventually gets help from a school counselor. He learns to deal positively with the situation; the book ends with a letter from Rocky’s mother and a page for Rocky to write a letter to his mom.

Trinelle Davis, volunteer coordinator at the Houston chapter of Families Under Urban Social Attack, said the book has been particularly effective for children ages 4 to 8. Many reside in foster care or, like Rocky, with grandparents.

The authors say it can help older children as well.

“A coloring book can be used by older children, because it allows everyone to find the child inside of them and be able to express themselves,” Beal said.

Both women agreed that the emotions kids experience surrounding a parent’s incarceration are similar to those faced when a parent dies. And Gilmore noted that incarceration carries an additional stigma.

Beal said she has already begun thinking about A Boy Named Rocky: Part II, in which Rocky’s mother is released. That book will address the parent’s struggle in returning home and the anger that children may harbor when that happens.