Amalia Molina and her late husband, Jose Gilberto Molina, were arrested in 1998 by the Immigration and Naturalization Service and detained at the San Pedro Detention Center in Long Beach, Calif. For the next 16 months, their children were on their own while the couple from El Salvador fought to gain asylum. 

Amalia Molina, who developed the Families of the Incarcerated program for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Courtesy photo

“They were 18, 15 and 13, the worst ages for teenagers,” she said. 

When the children lost their housing, the oldest daughter, who was in college, got a job in a parking lot and someone took in the younger brother and sister. 

“Nobody knew we were in prison,” Molina said. “The children were afraid to say it.” 

Yet they came every Saturday to visit and to touch and kiss their parents through glass partitions. 

“They would say ‘I love you’ and I would tell them to prove it by not doing something bad,” Molina said. “I would tell them, ‘We are not with you, but you know how to behave.’ I had a chance to give them strength and hope.” 

That, she told OSV, gave her the sense of how important it is for children to not feel abandoned when their parents are in prison.

“That gave me the heart for this work,” she said. 

Stark statistics

In 2005, Molina developed the Families of the Incarcerated program of the Office of Restorative Justice in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. It’s one of a number of Catholic outreaches to children whose parents are in prison. 

Camp Champ
When the Diocese of Juneau, Alaska, lost funding for a summer camp for children of incarcerated parents, local school districts donated money and a Methodist church camp donated their facility and the food. There was only one stipulation: the camp had to be for homeless children, not specifically for kids whose parents were in prison. 
That’s what it turned out to be anyway.
“The crossover was something that we hadn’t expected,” said Bunti Reed, program manager for the diocese’s Family Resources Center, which runs the camp. “Nearly every homeless child had experience with parent incarceration.”
Among the 38 campers in June, 11 had parents currently serving time, and all but three had parents who have been in prison.
“These camps are important because a lot of these kids don’t get to have fun,” Reed said.
The camp, in operation since 2004, attracts mostly fourth, fifth and sixth graders. Themes focus on positive models in social skills and relationships, and figures of authority who interact with them in fun ways.
“It’s hard to not be afraid of a policeman if your mommy or daddy was hauled away,” Reed said.
This year, a policewoman taught archery and a member of the Coast Guard talked about rescues. Correctional officers answered questions and, Reed said, “Some of those questions were pretty profound.”
The diocesan program also helps parents and children to stay in touch with cards and video recordings for holidays and milestone events, like birthdays and going back to school.
“For those who are incarcerated, time stands still,” Reed said. “We try to let them realize that life goes on for their children.”
The program also raises awareness of the stigma that children face when their parents are incarcerated. Reed has seen a resurgence in “the idea that somehow, it’s not good for kids to see their parents in prison.” It’s an attitude, she said, that often comes from resentful caregivers but is now prevalent in some agencies.
“Kids need their parents, in prison or not,” she said.

Responding to their needs is critical. According to national statistics from the Department of Juvenile Justice, 7 out of 10 children who have parents in prison will end up in prison themselves. 

“There definitely is a connection, and those are frightening statistics,” said Sharin Yetman, director of the federally funded Foster Grandparent Program run by Catholic Charities in the Diocese of San Diego. 

That outreach pairs senior citizens with youth who are in foster care or are themselves in the juvenile justice system — situations that put many of them at risk for adult incarceration. 

Eighteen of the 110 grandparent volunteers minister at Juvenile Hall, a lockdown facility for adjudicated youth. About 40 percent have parents or other family members in prison and are experiencing their own incidents of recidivism. In many cases, they have connections with drugs and the 57 gangs in Imperial Valley County, which is located on the Mexican border. 

“These kids are a result of their environment,” Yetman said. “They come from homes where the parents and other family members are in and out of jail. The parents are on drugs, and that’s all these kids know.” 

The senior volunteers mentor in many ways, beginning with building a relationship. 

“They have to learn to trust an adult, and that’s not always easy,” she said. “So they have someone who will listen and talk about their options, healthy choices and the importance of school in their future.” 

The grandparents work with literacy issues and provide tutoring, giving new opportunities to the youth who struggle with reading or language barriers. 

“The kids love them,” Yetman said. “They are nurturing and loving, but they are firm.” 

Intervening with teens

The intervention is especially valuable for teens nearing 18, whose first offense as an adult might land them in prison. One teenager who was aging out told her that his father was in prison, and so was his grandfather, his uncle and his brother. And he had already fathered a child. 

“He had responsibility and really had to turn his life around and make it good,” Yetman said. “He told me how much the grandparents helped him. We have success stories and get letters from some of the kids who are doing well. Some are in college or have joined the military.” 

The program in Los Angeles includes Journeys of Hope, which provides transportation for children to visit their parents twice a year. 

“We also have a day at the beach and a picnic, and Christmas parties,” Molina said. “The children and families get to see others in the same situation, and they can talk and understand each other. If you talk about this with other people who haven’t been touched by the criminal system, they don’t want to hear it. They judge them. So the children and families get to cry together and laugh together.” 

There are 2,000 families in her program’s database, and when she first came on the job, she postponed talking to two families with loved ones on death row. She didn’t know what to say to them. 

“I just prayed and called them, and the one woman started crying,” she said. “This was the first phone call she had in 15 years from someone who wanted to see how she was doing.” 

So now the staff calls each family twice a year. The diocesan office also has parenting classes, healing services for families and children and educational workshops. Breaking Barriers is a gathering for mothers whose children were murdered with mothers whose children committed murder. 

“I am not helping the inmates,” Molina said. “I am working for the people who are left behind. There’s support for victims, and you talk about the crimes and the people who committed the crimes, but what about their families? They feel abandoned and lonely. We empower them to keep going and to look for hope. And the children need to have a good life even if their parents are in prison. They need to go to school, have recreation, and their lives need to keep going.” 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.