Family Reunification

Family Reunification

DC Public Safety Radio

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LEONARD SIPES: From the nation’s capital this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host Leonard Sipes. Ladies and gentlemen our program today is on family reunification and it’s an important topic. Criminologists from around the country are discussing this. And to find out what family reunification really means, at our microphones today, Wanda Tolliver, she is the Interim Deputy Director of Program Operations for the Child and Family Services Agency in Washington DC., Wanda Tolliver welcome to DC Public Safety.

WANDA TOLLIVER: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.

LEONARD SIPES: You know I did this program on the television side of DC Public Safety, at , the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, a federal probation serving Washington DC. I did the television show and the television show focused on what family reunification is because the more I talked to my own people within the criminal justice system, the more they seemed to be confused about what family reunification means. So what does family reunification mean?

WANDA TOLLIVER: Okay. So when you talk about family reunification, you’re talking about when children have been removed from their family of origin, which is their birth family. They have been removed and brought into the foster care system. At that point decisions are made, what will it take in order for them to be reunified with their family?


WANDA TOLLIVER: So that’s what we’re referencing when we say family reunification.

LEONARD SIPES: But in this case, in terms of the criminal justice system, it also seems to mean, people in prison staying in contact with loved ones in the community, family in the community, and it also seems to mean some emphasis on what happens to the children that they leave behind. Correct?

WANDA TOLLIVER: Absolutely. And so what that entails is, if parents are incarcerated, how do their children remain connected to them? In spite of the fact that they’re not in their physical custody but how do they maintain that emotional connection?


WANDA TOLLIVER: So that is also a part of the family reunification. And historically, Leonard, it has been known that once children entered the child welfare system and if parents were incarcerated, they were forgotten.

LEONARD SIPES: Right. And that’s a big concern. I mean we have two million human beings, on any given day, locked up. We have 1.5 million in prison and another 500,000 in jails. Now there’s a huge turnover over the course of the year. So we have two million human beings that are behind bars. The research from the Urban Institute seems to indicate that the more contact they, they ones who stay, have with family, with prosocial people from the community, the better they do upon return to the community. Correct?

WANDA TOLLIVER: That’s correct. And it’s a win; win for both the children and for the parents as well. Being able to stay connected to their children has— it’s just a win, win. It makes them, it motivates the parents to do what they need to do in order to be successful and it gives the children the opportunity to realize that, even though my parents are not physically here, I still have that connection. And that has been proven over time that they have better development. And they have better outcomes.

LEONARD SIPES: I spent 14 years with the Maryland Department of Public Safety and we have 30 prisons throughout the state of Maryland. One of the prisons up in Hagerstown held a family reunification day where the individual inmate would spend virtually the entire day in a court yard that was set up. You know barbeque stands and try to make it as family friendly as possible, picnic tables, umbrellas, try to keep the correctional officers out of the picture, and to interact with folks that day. One of the amazing things that we found is that we could have troublesome inmates within that facility but they would do whatever they had to do. I mean the amount of violations just went down dramatically by the people participating. They would not do anything that would jeopardize spending time with their loved ones and especially their children. So I found that to be fascinating.


LEONARD SIPES: So it’s not only something for the criminal justice system to consider from a criminological point of view, from a sociological point of view, it’s something the wardens of institutions need to consider from the standpoint of peace and security within their own institutions.

WANDA TOLLIVER: Absolutely. And that is sometimes some of the constraints about even visitation. Because In some facilities they allow it, in other facilities they don’t. And it depends in the crime that was committed as well. So you have to navigate all of those types of things when you’re working with incarcerated parents and it can sometimes make it difficult. But I believe all throughout the country, people in child welfare, working in child welfare, are recognizing the importance of, you know, lets don’t hold biases against parents because they’re incarcerated. It is key and we need to figure out ways in which we can allow the interaction to take place. Some prisons offer Skype, you know where they can, the kids can have opportunities to visit their parents through Skype. So we’re just trying to find innovative ways in which we can keep that connection going.

LEONARD SIPES: Two things come to mind. Number one, especially in the District of Columbia, our offenders enter into the federal prison system. We don’t have local prisons anymore. So at one time the District of Columbia had Lorton, it was close by, it was in Virginia, now you have DC inmates going thousands of miles away from home. The agreement was, years ago when they federalized everything, was to try to have them within 500 miles but in the reality they are going all over the country. So contacting them is difficult, but having said that, the example that I just gave a couple of minutes ago, when I worked for the state of Maryland, you had inmates from Baltimore and they were incarcerated in Hagerstown, it’s an hour and half, two hours away. For many people, many family members, it was as if they were on the other side of the moon. We have them in rural areas spread all throughout the state of Maryland which requires hundreds of miles of travel. Even in a small state like the state of Maryland. So part of it is the physical distance, that part of it is the difficulty, correct?

WANDA TOLLIVER: Absolutely. And with that being said, I think I believe that now most jurisdictions are finding creative ways in which to not have that be a barrier for the connection and for the family. Because when you think of reunification, it doesn’t necessarily mean that that child is going to be reunified, it’s broader than that. It’s more so about maintaining that connection. That is what is so key. And if you do have a parent that’s in a Texas facility, what do you do as the social worker on the case to ensure— you may not get to have monthly visits, but maybe quarterly there’s an opportunity to take the child, or the children, to visit the parent that’s incarcerated out of state.

LEONARD SIPES: I know some jurisdictions are now going to tablets. And they’re having face time conversations with their family members via a tablet that is given out by the administration. So there are innovative ways of keeping family members in touch.


LEONARD SIPES: And again, not to beat this point to death, there are real pieces of evidence, research that shows that in terms of that eight year old boy, eight year old girl, and in terms of the inmate behind bars, it has very meaningful positive effects on all of them to stay in touch with each other.

WANDA TOLLIVER: That is so true. And research bears that out as well as just people working in this environment. They recognize that children want to know where they come from, who they come from, that this person— They want to be able to know what that person looks like, what that person sounds like. It makes a great difference, even if the recognize that there’s no opportunity for that person to be in their lives on a daily basis. Just knowing where they come from, being a part of a father or a mother that they may not have had a lot of contact with, but it eases them. It releases a certain amount of their angst and trauma also. And we have found that more and more in this profession, in the child welfare profession, that children that don’t have a connection with their birth families, they have a more difficult time as far as development, as far as maintaining their mental health stability, they deal with a lot more trauma.

LEONARD SIPES: Well I do want to get onto the kids who are left behind in the process because according to the data that I’ve seen, the great majority of people who are involved in prison systems are parents.


LEONARD SIPES: And they leave behind, in most cases, minor kids. So there is obviously that disconnect. And those minor kids, research does seem to indicate, they have higher rates of substance abuse, higher rates of mental health problems. So if we’re ever going to break the cycle, part of that process of breaking the cycle is to ensure that families are kept together or as reunified as possible.

WANDA TOLLIVER: Right, absolutely. And I was also going to add that it’s just been proven over and over again. And a lot of that, Leonard, has to do with our own personal values, our personal judgments, and our biases about people who are incarcerated. But you have to look beyond all that because in the eyes of that child, or that youth because it could be an older youth, like 14, 15, 16.

LEONARD SIPES: It could be 19, 20, 24.

WANDA TOLLIVER: Absolutely. We have to push aside all of that because at the end of the day, it’s what in the best interest of the child, or the youth.

LEONARD SIPES: Now that we’ve set that foundation, I want to go to the other part of the continuum and this is why people are somewhat confused when they hear family reunification. It’s that sometimes the families themselves are the problem. In terms of fathers who did not take care of the kids, fathers who possibly beat mothers, mothers who may have ignored the kids and they end up in the prison system. I’ve interviewed before, these microphones, heavens, probably 30, 40 women caught up in the criminal justice system. Virtually all tell stories of family dysfunction, of violence, and in many cases sexual violence directed toward them as children. So we have that part of it as well. That part of the complexity as well. But the interesting part is, is that even though they went through that experience and now they’re part of the criminal justice system and even though they have animosity and or blame towards their mother or their fathers, they still want contact.

WANDA TOLLIVER: Absolutely. We— Sometimes you may have horrendous things that are done to children by their parents but they still want that connection. They do.

LEONARD SIPES: They still need that connection.

WANDA TOLLIVER: They need it.

LEONARD SIPES: There’s something psychologically deep within us that needs that connection to, if nothing else, to say why not, if nothing else than to have that conversation.

WANDA TOLLIVER: And also because they love their parents. It’s instinctive. And one of the things is a lot of times when parents are incarcerated; children just want to know that their parents are okay. You know what I mean? Even though they are told, you know they may have done this, they have done that, but in the eyes of that child or that youth, they just want to be able to make sure that the parent is okay.

LEONARD SIPES: At least to be able to see them if nothing else, through a tablet if nothing else. Now we do closed circuit television here. We’re experimenting with that in terms of family reunification here at the Court Services and Offenders Supervision Agency. It’s a small pilot program but what we’re trying to do is figure out the best way to make sure that families do remain reunified with people who are spread out throughout the United States. But that’s complex. It’s complex because of the family history, it’s complex because of the family animosities, it’s complex because of the distance and it’s complex because of the technology. The technology may be the saving grace.


LEONARD SIPES: If we start using tablets, start using smart phones that are approved and provided to that inmate and they have face to face contact with wives and kids or husbands, that could make things better.


LEONARD SIPES: And that’s the bottom line of all this. Correct?

WANDA TOLLIVER: Yes. Absolutely. The bottom line.

LEONARD SIPES: Let’s shift gears and go over to the kids. Now the kids become the innocent part of much of bad behavior.


LEONARD SIPES: They’re the ones who are left home. They’re the ones who are ignored. There are the ones— A lot of families are one parent households. I think President Obama, in terms of his latest research in terms of the condition of youth, starts talking about the immense number of people, kids, who are living just with one parent. If that one parent goes to prison what do they do? They’re sent off to grandma, they’re sent off to auntie. I mean this is a real problem. We’re talking about two million people in prison, we’re talking about up to ten million kids left behind.


LEONARD SIPES: And the impact of incarceration and what that means in their lives. They’re just not losing their father in many cases they’re losing everything.

WANDA TOLLIVER: But one of the good things that we have noted in child welfare, and I think this is across most jurisdictions, is the fact that now, what jurisdictions are doing now is ensuring that most of our kids end up with relatives. So that’s great because I could say, even as far back as ten years ago, that wasn’t happening. They ended up in stranger foster care. But now the trend is definitely, and it’s a good thing, that children are being placed in foster care settings but it’s with family members. And so this allows more children to have access to their bio parents.

LEONARD SIPES: We need to talk more about this because I’m extremely concerned with what’s happening to the kids who are left behind. But ladies and gentlemen we’re talking to Wanda Tolliver today, the interim director— The Interim Deputy Director of Program Operations for Child and Family Services Agency in Washing DC., www.cfsa.cov. This radio show follows the television show that we did on family reunification. And one of the things that everybody involved in that television show was talking about was what happens to the kids. The devastating impact of what happens even if they’re going to their aunts, even if they are going to their uncles, even if their going over to grandma and granddad’s house. They, in many cases have been abandoned. Now a certain percentage of them do go to the other parent but there’s got to be a point where they sit back, they’re eight years old, it has huge economic ramifications for them, it has huge personal and emotional ramifications for them. Regardless as to what dad did, dad remains dad. So we’re talking about, and I’ve never seen a firm figure on it but let’s just say out of — If there are two million people locked up behind bars it’s certainly double, triple, quadruple that number, so let’s just say eight million kids. That’s a huge burden on our society for those 8 million kids to be sitting there going, ‘I didn’t ask for this. Now what’s going to happen to me?’

WANDA TOLLIVER: Absolutely. And the thing that is more troubling than that is the fact that once parents are incarcerated, society feels that they should go away. That’s what’s troubling.

LEONARD SIPES: But they did go away. We sent them away.

WANDA TOLLIVER: We sent them away but there’s an opportunity to keep that engagement for the children’s sake. Right? Give them opportunities to engage.

LEONARD SIPES: Absolutely. I think that a big part of why we have the problem that we do is because we’ve ignored the kids over decades we have built a gazillion prison cells. We have put hundreds of billions of dollars in terms of building prisons all throughout the United States. The rate of increase of incarceration in the United States has been astronomical but we’ve done nothing about the kids that are left behind. And I think that’s a social problem that may explain why we continuously have problems. You can’t take mom and dad away without there being ramifications. But there’s little for the kids who are left behind. Correct?

WANDA TOLLIVER: Very little. But it’s getting better but at— It’s not at the rapid pace that it needs to be. Because, you know, over time I can see where it’s better than it was two years ago , with them offering like Skype and— But not all prison systems offer these types of things.

LEONARD SIPES: But not all communities offer these kinds of things either. I mean one of the things that shocked me when I was talking to two individuals who had parents who were incarcerated, ones now working for us at Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency. One started her own scholarship fund for children of incarcerated parents. These are all very encouraging things but all of us pretty much agreed that there is little left in the community that brings these kids together with other kids who have incarcerated parents, to talk about what’s going on in their lives.

WANDA TOLLIVER: You’re right.

LEONARD SIPES: They’re the ones that feel alone. They’re the ones that feel shut out. They’re the ones who feel abandoned. They’re the ones who feel stigmatized. They’re the ones where kids make fun of them. And now, I mean at eight nine years old that’s a burden nobody should have to carry.

WANDA TOLIVER: Absolutely.

LEONARD SIPES: So the question now becomes, is it the prison system’s responsibility to deal with the kids or is it the community’s responsibility to deal with the kids?

WANDA TOLLIVER: Or is it a combination of both?


WANDA TOLLIVER: Yes. I would agree with that. You need to do more.

LEONARD SIPES: We, throughout the country need to do more to focus on kids with incarcerated parents.

WANDA TOLLIVER: Yes. Definitely.

LEONARD SIPES: Because they have their own unique needs. They need to talk this stuff through.


LEONARD SIPES: When I talked to the two people who came from parents of incarcerated children, who again are doing very well now, they said that they felt so alone and ignored by everybody because they were going through something unique and they desperately needed to talk about it. They desperately needed to talk about it with trained counselors or their peers but there was nothing.

WANDA TOLLIVER: Right. I agree.

LEONARD SIPES: And people throughout the country need to start focusing on this. Correct?


LEONARD SIPES: Okay. But the criminal justice system and the social services system is overburdened. Because, I mean you’re the Child and Family Services Agency in Washington DC, you’ve got to be so overburdened with cases and needs that— And all of us in the criminal justice system, social services system, we’re all overburdened. Now Leonard Sipes and Wanda Tolliver are asking everybody to take on yet additional work.

WANDA TOLLIVER: But we need to find a way because if we can help with this situation then the recidivism, or the generational— of kids following in the same pathway, we could ease some of that. But we have to recognize that it’s a problem, it’s an issue that we have to come up with some solutions around.

LEONARD SIPES: I mean there’s a human part of it. It’s simply, again I could keep— Every time I do a radio show, every time I do a television show, I have an image of the person that I’m talking to. And I have an image of the person of who I’m talking about. And I see it as an eight year old kid, sitting there saying ‘what did I do?’


LEONARD SIPES: ‘Why do I have to deal with this? This is unfair. I don’t like this. I’m angry.’

WANDA TOLLIVER: And especially Leonard when the father, the parent, whether it’s the father or whether it’s the mom, when they disappear into the criminal justice system, incarceration and the children don’t have any contact. That’s when they really feel like, what did I do, what happened, I need— They need some type of reassurance that it’s not their fault and that their parent is okay.

LEONARD SIPES: Mom is still Mom and Dad is still Dad.


LEONARD SIPES: It doesn’t matter what they’ve done, Mom is still Mom and Dad is still Dad. And we in the criminal justice system need to come to grips with it.

WANDA TOLLIVER: Exactly. Absolutely. Absolutely.

LEONARD SIPES: But again we’re saying, we’re so overcrowded. Our prison systems, our parole and probation agents throughout the country are handling caseloads of at least 150 to one. In Washington DC I always remind people it’s 50 to one. We’re a federal agency and we have the funds, thank God, to offer those lower caseloads. But most people within the criminal justice system, just— It’s like again, Leonard convince us because we don’t have the capacity, we’re barely dealing with what it is we have to deal with now.


LEONARD SIPES: You’re going to have to go a long way in convincing us that family reunification is a real issue. And the people that I talk to before doing radio, and television shows, because I try to get the opinions of different people, that’s their point of view.


LEONARD SIPES: They’re saying ‘don’t let us take on anything more, please.’

WANDA TOLLIVER: Right. And I would even say that a lot, maybe some, social workers feel that way too. ‘Really? You want us to take them, you know, 200 miles to see a parent?’ But at the end of the day as we, you know, child welfare systems are becoming more trauma informed. Right? Which is a great thing, and realizing that, if we don’t do this, we are putting more traumas on this child.

LEONARD SIPES: It’s the pay me now or pay me later sort of scenario.

WANDA TOLLIVER: You pay at the front end or pay at the back end, yes.

LEONARD SIPES: And the young lady who created ScholarCHIPS, that’s C H I P S, she said it was her Girl Scout troop that saved her. And come to find out within the Girl Scout troop there were other kids whose parents were incarcerated. So now it, I just don’t want to throw the burden on us, those of us in social services or those of us within the criminal justice system. I think the issue needs to go out to churches, to mosques, to Synagogues, to Boy Scouts, Girls Scouts, to—

WANDA TOLLIVER: School systems.

LEONARD SIPES: School systems, to little leagues, to even— Across the board there may be opportunities to engage these kids in conversations that they desperately need to have. I’m told that biggest problem in this is that we— they have no place to go to talk through their problems because they need another child whose incarcerated to commiserate with.

WANDA TOLLIVER: Exactly. Yes, yes. It would help them.

LEONARD SIPES: Maybe all we need to do is just set up those opportunities.


LEONARD SIPES: But they also need at the same time, professional counseling in some cases.


LEONARD SIPES: They need to work through the anger.


LEONARD SIPES: They need to work through the harm. They need to work through the abandonment.

WANDA TOLLIVER: Yes and we are recognizing that as a child welfare system as well, whether the children are in foster care or whether they’re in the home but with some child welfare oversight that it’s critical that they receive some type of therapeutic intervention in which to process the information.

LEONARD SIPES: Because sometimes kids don’t provide the best of advice, sometimes you do need a trained counselor to help them work through the anger and the frustration of now living with their grandparents or now living in poverty or now living— Help needs to be there. I mean, there’s no website for them to go to.


LEONARD SIPES: I mean in this day and age of social media, there’s no social media site, there’s no Facebook page. It’s just a barren wasteland. Some people have said we are completely ignoring millions upon millions of abandoned kids.


LEONARD SIPES: They don’t even have a place to go to on the web.

WANDA TOLLIVER: Right. So what can we do?

LEONARD SIPES: I don’t know. That’s the question.

WANDA TOLLIVER: We have to find a way to do something different.

LEONARD SIPES: That’s why when I talk to my counterparts in the criminal justice system, it is, ‘oh please Leonard, don’t let us take on yet another issue.’ And it’s like, you know, if we don’t take this issue on, we’re lost.


LEONARD SIPES: I mean one of the things that the Court Services and Offenders Supervision Agency is doing this year is, we really are asking families for help. We really understand that family for reentry is a critical component and that’s one of the themes that we’re running with this year. But I don’t see that in, I don’t see that articulated by a lot of parole and probation agencies, that we’re recognizing family reunification is an issue for supervision success.


LEONARD SIPES: And why doesn’t— Why don’t other people? It’s the question.

WANDA TOLLIVER: It’s the question. We need an answer.

LEONARD SIPES: But I mean it is, in the final analysis we have some research from the urban institute and we have some research from other organizations and we have people like you and me talking about it and we did a television show on it and it’s now being discussed and we’ve recognized it as a priority. But I just don’t get the sense that in parole and probation it is that much of an issue. I don’t get the sense that in social sciences and social services it’s that’s much of an issue.

WANDA TOLLIVER: Right. And we have to be honest and recognize that sometimes they’re burdened with, as you said, a high case load or they have a— They have a different agenda. And I think that it’s important that the agenda include the wellbeing of children,

LEONARD SIPES: But I do think that President Obama has made it a point to talk about that. And now between the administration and some agencies, it is being discussed for the first time. I just find it, not whimsical; I don’t want to use that word. I just find it distressing. Somewhere in between when I talk to my peers and they’re going, ‘family what? Oh you mean connecting the kid with the inmate. Yeah that’s something we should do.’ And that’s it. And it doesn’t go beyond that. So the bottom line is, some way, somehow, we need convince everybody to get involved in this.


LEONARD SIPES: We need to convince the churches.


LEONARD SIPES: The little leagues. Everybody.

WANDA TOLLIVER: The school systems.

LEONARD SIPES: Maybe we should do a national campaign.


LEONARD SIPES: You know? Don’t leave anybody behind.


LEONARD SIPES: Because it’s going to have ramifications for you in the future. Another phrase came to mind, but you can’t say that on government pod casts. Wanda it’s been wonderful talking to you today.


LEONARD SIPES: Ladies and gentlemen Wanda Tolliver. She is the Interim Deputy Director of Program Operations for Child and Family Services Agency in Washington DC., Ladies and gentlemen this is DC public safety. We appreciate your comments; we even appreciate your criticisms. And we want everybody to have themselves a very pleasant day.

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