Francine had a mink coat before she could walk and her stuffed animals were filled with money, in denominations of no less than $20.00. She played with $10,000.00 train sets with a boy named Sean (who would grow up to be known as Sean “Diddy” Combs) and sometimes famed boxer Joe Louis was her babysitter.
One morning, she was in the kitchen as her dad was making breakfast. She was Daddy’s Baby and played while he fried bacon and eggs. Suddenly, armed men stormed into their home. Her daddy grabbed her and held her close to his chest. Her moment of comfort was shattered when one of the men ripped her from his arms and hauled her dad away in handcuffs.
She was three years old.
Alex has a secret that he doesn’t want to talk about. Alex’s friends Abby and Rosita want to have their dads help them make some toy cars. Alex gets upset when they start talking about their dads and runs away. His friends go after him to find out what’s going on. It turns out Alex’s dad is not around…because he’s in jail. Grown-up friend Sophia lets him know that when she was his age, her dad was incarcerated, too.
“What’s carcerated and why was your dad in it?” Abby asks.
Francine was the youngest daughter of famed drug kingpin, Frank Lucas, whose story was told in the 2007 film “American Gangster,” starring Denzel Washington as Lucas. Frank controlled much of the heroin trade in 1970s Harlem. He was known for shipping heroin from Vietnam in the caskets of dead soldiers. He was later sentenced to 70 years in prison.
On that fateful morning, Francine became one of the millions of children of the incarcerated.
Since Francine’s father, and, later, her mother, were put in jail in the 1970s, the number of children with an incarcerated parent has increased nearly 80%. It is estimated that there are more than 2.7 million children that have at least one parent in jail. Approximately ten million children have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives. Yet, there are very few resources to help these children deal with all the big feelings that come with seeing mommy or daddy handcuffed and taken away for what always seems like, in the eyes of a child, forever.
Like Francine did as a child, Alex lives in New York. Except Alex lives on Sesame Street and is a muppet.
Alex is the newest character introduced in June 2013, as part of Sesame Street’s “Little Children, Big Challenges” initiative. They’ve created a toolkit for kids, caregivers and educators to help deal with the big feelings and unique challenges of being a child of an incarcerated parent. It also helps the parents. The initiative’s goals are to:
-support, comfort and reduce anxiety, sadness and confusion that young children (ages 3-8) may experience during the incarceration of a parent.
-provide at-home caregivers with strategies, tips and age-appropriate language they can use to help communicate with their children about incarceration.
-inform incarcerated parents that they can parent from anywhere, and provide them with simple parenting tips highlighting the importance of communication.
Francine’s formative years were spent being raised by her grandparents and hiding the shameful secret that her father and mother were in jail. I knew Francine as an adult for seven years before she shared her secret with me. The only reason she did so was because Denzel Washington was about to portray her father in a big Hollywood movie.
In our country’s tough on crime rhetoric, little thought is given to the children of the people that end up on the wrong side of the law. These children don’t know what “grown up rules” their mommies or daddies broke. Francine knew nothing about drugs or heroine. She thought daddy sold candy.
For these kids, they have no understanding of what their parents have done. They still love their mommies and daddies and just want to be with them. They need someone to understand that. Whatever their mistakes, these parents still love their children and want to be in their lives. They need support to do so.
Sesame Street has long been at the forefront of showing the life of inner city kids. When other shows had kids in houses with green lawns, the kids on Sesame Street lived in brick buildings and played on concrete. The people of Sesame Street weren’t just white. They were black, brown and some spoke Spanish.
Finally, kids in the inner city could say, “Hey! They’re just like me!”
Today, many of those same kids have a parent in prison, or have a friend who does. Like Francine, Alex didn’t want to talk about why his dad was in prison. He just wants to be able to express how much he misses him. He needs support and friends to understand and to make him feel like he belongs.
Finally, kids like Alex can say, “Hey, he’s just like me!”