“My niece was only six years old when her father (my brother) dropped her off at school one day,” said Tonya Wiley, a Class of 2012 Connecticut Health Foundation (CT Health) Leadership Fellow. “And then she didn’t see him again until she was nine years old.”
Tonya described how withdrawn and despondent her niece became without her father, who was her primary caretaker. She also confessed to me how hard it was as an aunt and a sister to try and advocate for both her niece and brother. At only age six, there was no delicate way to tell her what had happened to her father without it appearing like he had abandoned her.
Tonya had this experience in mind when she became a participant in the CT Health Leadership Fellows program. The program is meant to foster leaders who can help build public will for eliminating racial and ethnic health disparities in Connecticut. It’s an intensive, ten-month curriculum that requires participants to complete a group project, otherwise known as “coalition work.”
Tonya, along with Mari Merwin, John Torello, and Jenn Whinnem, formed a coalition to reduce racial and ethnic health disparities in children’s mental health. Together, they chose to focus on the children of incarcerated parents (CIP). Connecticut’s prison system is disproportionately minority according to a Sentencing Project report in 2007. It showed that “of the 1.7 million children in America with a parent in prison, more than 70 percent were children of color.”
And, as demonstrated by Tonya’s niece, the incarceration of a parent is a traumatic experience that can lead to mental health issues for a child. With the majority of children affected by these circumstances being children of color, the coalition knew they had a health disparities issue they could address.
What if, the coalition wondered, children of incarcerated parents were connected with mental health services immediately after the parent’s incarceration? Could this lead to early identification and treatment for the children who needed it, and ultimately, better health outcomes for those children?
CT Health’s theory of change is changing systems. To get to the root of an issue, you have to change the systems that touch that issue. The coalition chose to focus on the Department of Corrections (DOC), a major player in the prison system. If DOC would make a change to the orientation process for inmates, wherein the DOC officer would inquire about children and offer to call 2-1-1 to identify a provider who could check on the child(ren), more children could get connected to services.
Using their existing network of contacts, the coalition homed in on an existing project that sought to reach children at the time of arrest. The coalition’s point of view was that parents would be more likely to worry about the safety of their children and, accordingly, express interest in making that connection. So, they brought DOC leadership to the table to expand the project to reach children at the point of incarceration.
Mari, John, Jenn, and Tonya have since graduated from the program to become Fellows, but they continue to work on the project. Thus far, DOC officers have undergone training from 2-1-1 so that they know how to connect the incarcerated parents to services for their children. Down the line, this has the opportunity to lead to fewer mental health issues in children like Tonya’s niece, and reduce disparities overall.
Elizabeth Zyzo is a HJCT program intern and Junior at the University of Connecticut.
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