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Hope House

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

Carol FennellyCarol Fennelly is being honored as a Champion of Change for her dedication to the well-being of children of incarcerated parents.

Hope House was created in 1998 when the closing of the District of Columbia’s Lorton Correctional Center scattered thousands of DC inmates across the country to federal prisons. As a January 21, 2013, Washington Post article stated, "In a city where three out of four African American men will serve time in prison, two-thirds of its inmates are housed in 100 different federal Bureau of Prisons institutions from Pennsylvania to California." Inherent in that alarming statistic is the fact that thousands of DC children have one or more parent in prison. With many families living in or near poverty, visits and even long-distance phone calls are nearly impossible. This splintering of families causes damage on all sides. Frequently children feel abandoned, unloved, ashamed, and burdened with keeping the secret of their dad's whereabouts. Over time, the negative impact on their sense of self keeps many children from developing a positive outlook and taking positive action for their own futures. Such children are far less likely to succeed in school and more likely to succumb to substance abuse, gangs, and delinquency.

Research shows that bringing parents and their families together leads to many positive outcomes. Children who regularly visit with incarcerated parents show improved emotional adjustment, experience greater school achievement, and exhibit fewer risky behaviors than those who do not. Inmates who participate in family visitation programs have much lower rates of parole violation and recidivism after release than do non-participants.

Our mission is to help children stay connected to their fathers in prison. Our goals are to (a) strengthen families by improving the bonds between children and their fathers imprisoned far from home; (b) reduce the isolation, stigma, shame and risk these families experience when fathers are imprisoned; and (c) raise public awareness about this most at-risk population.

We currently operate in 11 federal prisons in Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, the District of Columbia, and West Virginia. In the past three years we added two Maryland state prisons, as well. In our 15-year history, we have served more than 1,000 families; made more than 19,000 book recordings; provided summer camp for nearly 900 children and fathers; and conducted about 2,600 teleconferences. Our programs include:

-- Father-to-Child Reading Program: We use reading to build relationships between children and fathers, and we use their desire for a relationship to motivate them to continue reading together. We visit prisons regularly to make recordings of fathers reading the children's books we provide. We then mail the recordings and books home to the children. Research shows that reading to children improves language skills and interest in books.

-- Father-to-Child Teleconference Program: Children come to Hope House to visit with incarcerated fathers through a live teleconference. They typically read together, do homework, and catch up on the moments they are missing.

-- Father-to-Child Summer Camps: Until we helped two groups replicate it, this was the nation's only summer camp for fathers in prison. In each camp, 15-20 children spend 5 hours behind bars, for five days, with their fathers. Families work on art projects, compete as teams in games, dance and drum, journal, and have lunch together. Children and fathers build a more positive vision of their own futures, as dads encourage kids to avoid the paths that they themselves have taken. They get rare moments to act as a family when dads pass on bits of family history or advice, listening to and encouraging their children's dreams for the future. Children spend the evenings at a traditional camp with other recreational activities. They leave camp feeling cherished and supported, better equipped to face the world because they are confident in their father's love. Three years ago we expanded from two camps to three by adding a Maryland "supermax" facility where most serve life sentences. Our immediate challenge was organizing the leaders of competing gangs into a cooperative group; they agreed to suspend gang activity for the sake of a successful camp for their children. Last year a nearby prison joined this camp. For 12 years ours was the only such program in the country. Last year we mentored CA and NH groups to start camps.

-- Peer Support Groups address the isolation and social stigma experienced by children left behind when the father is imprisoned. Children's groups meet for outings, sleepovers, discussion groups, community service projects, and parties.

-- Outreach and Advocacy includes public productions to emphasize the difficulties faced by the children, conference presentations for policy-makers, publication of three books of poetry by our children and their fathers, and media outreach.

Carol Fennelly is the Executive Director of Hope House.