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Jim Kenyon: Children of incarcerated parents pay the price

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Columnist
Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Since she started working a dozen years ago with kids who have a parent in prison in Vermont, Tricia Long has been looking for a way to get their voices heard.

She’s found it.

Long, a mental health counselor, and Corinth filmmaker Brad Salon have teamed up on a new documentary that tells the story of one in 17 children in Vermont. (Each year, 6,000 children in the state experience the loss of a mom or dad to incarceration.)

Downstream: The Effects of Parental Incarceration captures the everyday struggles of kids whose lives have been turned upside down through no fault of their own.

The hourlong film, which premiered this spring, will be shown next Thursday, May 23, at Briggs Opera House in White River Junction, starting at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are free, but reserving seats in advance on the film’s website (www.downstreamfilm.com) is encouraged.

Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman is hosting the event, which includes a discussion with some of the film’s participants following the screening.

The aerial footage of winding rivers (which spawned the title Downstream) and surrounding hills shot with a drone give the film a distinct Vermont feel.

But it’s not a pretty picture. It’s hard to not be moved by a teenager talking about his handcuffed dad being loaded into the back of a police cruiser — not knowing when he’ll be home again. Or the girl who spends Saturdays visiting her mother — incarcerated for drug and financial crimes — at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility. “Regardless of everything she’s done,” the girl said, “she’s still my mom.”

How Downstream came to be is a story in itself.

Long, 60, is director of Resilience Beyond Incarceration, or RBI, for short, in Hyde Park, which is 10 miles south of Stowe in the Lamoille River Valley. RBI, a one-of-a-kind program in Vermont, operates under the auspices of the nonprofit Lamoille Restorative Center.

Along with working directly with impacted families who have an incarcerated parent, Long trains teachers, day care providers and health care professionals who interact with children of incarcerated parents.

Originally, Long envisioned making a 20-minute training film to show during her presentations. To that end, she secured a $20,000 state grant.

Long didn’t know Salon, but after seeing a short film that he’d made about the effects of childhood trauma on people later in life, she reached out to him. Salon, 36, describes himself as an “emerging filmmaker” who incorporated his company, Bear Notch Productions, earlier this year.

“We had no script, no plan and a shoestring budget,” Long said.

When Salon started filming Long on her home visits, he immediately saw the trust she had built with kids — some of whom she’d known for 10 years. Hearing kids tell their stories was “what really opened my eyes,” Salon said. “I knew we were no longer making a training film. We had a documentary.”

From the outset, Long assured the dozen or so kids and caregivers that they could back out at any time. “All the kids were a little reluctant at first, but they found the courage to do it,” she said. “They want to make things better for other kids in their situation.”

After losing a parent to incarceration, kids can bounce between foster homes. Not wanting to be known in school as the “kid whose mom (or dad) is in jail,” the film points out, “children will often suffer in silence,” (One girl talks about losing her best friend because the friend’s mother didn’t approve.)

From her travels around the state, Long had come to recognize that “what happens to kids when their parents are incarcerated is not something that most Vermonters know much about,” she said. “I trusted that if people knew the story, they would care.”

During the 10-month project, Salon could see that raising public awareness was a worthy goal, but it wouldn’t necessarily improve the lives of kids with incarcerated parents.

“What’s the solution?” he’d asked Long.

“There isn’t a single solution,” Long told him. “There are a million ways that people can help make these kids’ lives better.”

I can think of a few.

It starts with the state’s elected officials. Vermonters need people in Montpelier who are committed to reforming the criminal justice system. As long as Vermont’s prisons are overflowing (roughly 200 inmates are warehoused now at a for-profit prison in Mississippi), more kids will suffer the consequences.

“We spend more money locking people up than sending them to college in this state,” Attorney General TJ Donovan said during an interview included in Downstream. (Former Windsor County State’s Attorney Bobby Sand, who now teaches at Vermont Law School, is also in the film.)

For Vermonters who want to help kids featured in the film such as Alyena, Ezra and Haylee (the film only uses first names), I suggest they look at the Department of Corrections’ website and its visitation rules (all 28 of them).

Rule No. 2: Children who are 11 years old and younger may have a brief hug and kiss with their parent at the beginning and end of each visit.

Rule No. 3: Physical contact between inmate and visitors over the age of 11 is strictly prohibited.

Rule No. 4: No child over the age of 5 may sit on the lap of an inmate.

Instead of trying to keep offenders connected to their children, DOC has rules to keep them apart, literally. (Rules at the women’s prison in South Burlington are more lax.)

Prison officials claim the rules are in place for security reasons, including preventing the spread of contraband. In other states, however, incarcerated dads can play board games with their children and share a bag of chips from a vending machine.

“These kids have done nothing wrong,” Long said, “yet they’re paying a very high price.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.