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Building Support, Defending Rights, Pioneering Solutions for Children and Families

Elizabeth Gaynes is being honored as a Champion of Change for her dedication to the well-being of children of incarcerated parents.

Elizabeth GaynesElizabeth Gaynes is being honored as a Champion of Change for her dedication to the well-being of children of incarcerated parents.

At the age of 22, my son moved from NYC to a rural Southern town where there was little more than an Army recruiting station, a Walmart, and a prison. He waited tables during the week and every Sunday visited his father in prison. After spending most of his life separated from his dad, my son felt he needed to get to know his father better. The fact is, all children have a right to know their parents. But the prison frenzy in this country has led to the largest separation of parents and children since slavery. Today, more than 10 million children in the U.S. have experienced the incarceration of a parent.

When my children's father went to prison in 1984, I believed that even while incarcerated he could provide them with the love and attention that are crucial to every child's development and future prospects. As executive director of the Osborne Association, a New York nonprofit I have led for nearly 30 years, I was able to establish FamilyWorks, the first comprehensive parenting program for fathers in a men's state prison. I believed that supporting men to become better fathers, even from prison, would benefit their children, reduce recidivism and strengthen the families and communities to which fathers would return. The research has proven us right.

My daughter Emani Davis began advocating on behalf of children of prisoners when she was 14, and demanded that we stop calling her and her peers children "at risk" and begin calling them children at promise. She showed us that children of prisoners benefited from their connection with other children who understood their experience. When Emani and I became the first Americans ever nominated for the World's Children's Prize for the Rights of the Child in Sweden, they told us they believed mass incarceration was the greatest threat to child wellbeing in the U.S.

Soon after, the Osborne Association launched the New York Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents, a partnership of more than 65 government, academic and community organizations advocating on behalf of policy and practice recommendations to improve the lives and outcomes of children with incarcerated parents. The growing consensus on these goals may signal a shift in the conversation from retribution to reconciliation, and a willingness to address the collateral damage of incarceration.

New York has led the nation in reducing crime and incarceration and has closed prisons. Unfortunately, the problems faced by children with incarcerated parents don't disappear the day their parents come home. Adjusting to life out of prison, finding stable housing and a job, affect a child's relationship with a formerly incarcerated parent. Fortunately one of the shuttered prisons, Fulton Correctional Facility in the Bronx, is being transferred to Osborne to develop into a groundbreaking full service reentry facility, because their successful reintegration into their families and communities benefits all of us.

I am proud to be part of a growing consensus on the importance of supporting families affected by crime and incarceration, and grateful that the White House has recognized our community of champions - including the Champions of Change and the millions of children and their parents and caregivers who live this reality every day.

Elizabeth Gaynes is the Executive Director of the Osborne Association.