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Changing Lives, Changing Systems: A Decade of Advocacy for Children of Incarcerated Parents

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

Claire WalkerClaire Walker is being honored as a Champion of Change for her dedication to the well-being of children of incarcerated parents.

In 2003 the Pittsburgh Child Guidance Foundation, under the leadership of then Executive Director Claire Walker, began a campaign to move the citizens of Allegheny County Pennsylvania to action on behalf of children and families of prisoners. Dr. Walker helped the Foundation craft a strategy of research, publication, mobilization, partnering, piloting, and transitioning to sustainability. For ten years the Foundation passionately pursued this strategy. And lives and systems have indeed changed. 

The campaign began with two years of solid fact-finding. What was learned from the children, their incarcerated parents, and their caregivers – as well as service providers, public officials, and correctional and probation officers – shocked the community. Through the Foundation’s first publication (2005) and the public education that surrounded its distribution, decision makers and citizens discovered the devastating losses experienced by thousands of children in their own neighborhoods when parents are incarcerated, and learned, too, about the long-term damage these losses can cause.

Mobilized into action by the facts an extraordinary group of public officials, citizens, funders, and criminal justice professionals joined to create:

• a protocol to protect children from trauma at the time of a parent’s arrest and training for law enforcement officers in Pittsburgh, the largest city in the County;

• a team of human service professionals who answer the phones at the County Jail nights and weekends to facilitate communication with families so children know where their parents are, reducing their fear that their parents are lost;

• a child-friendly Jail lobby with staff to welcome and comfort children as they wait to visit their parents and to provide information for caregivers;

• a reentry program in the Jail staffed by human service professionals to help families heal and encourage incarcerated parents to bond with their children and work with the other adults in the children’s lives;

• an 8AM-to-8PM Jail discharge center and an agreement by the courts and Jail to release people only during the day so parents can get home to their children and avoid an immediate return to Jail, a very common result in the past when many were released between 2 and 4 in the morning, alone and without resources;

• an “ombudsman” position in County government for the families and children of incarcerated parents to help them navigate the mazes of the criminal justice and human services systems; and

• state and local judicial and legislative changes to protect children’s need and right to be parented when their parents are in Jail.

Claire Walker’s leadership was instrumental in forging a coalition of more than a dozen foundations in Pittsburgh which came to focus on the needs of prisoners and their families and the dysfunctions of the criminal justice system. She and her colleagues leveraged millions in state and national private and public dollars to improve systems in Allegheny County, always highlighting the special requirements of parents and children.

In addition, she and the Pittsburgh Child Guidance Foundation helped to renew the strength and mission of the Allegheny County Jail Collaborative, a critical partnership of local courts, the Jail, and County departments of human services and health. Committed to reducing recidivism, the reenergized Collaborative is focusing much of its reentry agenda on building healthy relationships between the people in Jail and their children and families. Family support and healthy attachment between parents and children are key objectives of the successful recidivism-reduction programs implemented by the Collaborative since 2009. Another important thrust of the Foundation under Dr. Walker’s leadership has been its partnership with Amachi-Pittsburgh to build a platform from which young people whose parents are incarcerated can speak their own truths and be heard. Claire Walker retired as Executive Director of the Pittsburgh Child Guidance Foundation at the end of 2012, happy that the future of advocacy for children and families of prisoners in Allegheny County rests in the strong hands of the Allegheny County Jail Collaborative and the young “Ambassadors” of Amachi-Pittsburgh.

Claire Walk is a Board Member of the Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board and former Executive Director of the Pittsburgh Child Guidance Foundation.