DURHAM — When Meg Scott Phipps was sent to prison in West Virginia in 2004, she was separated from her family and her two middle-school-age children.
“I went to the courthouse in Greensboro, and I didn’t come home,” she said.
Phipps, who was the N.C. commissioner of agriculture, was sent to Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia for perjury and obstruction of justice. Because her family had the resources, they were able to visit her at the prison, but she said it was heartbreaking to be away from her children for so long.
Phipps recently spoke at a breakfast to introduce Durham and Orange County community leaders to Our Children’s Place, an educational and advocacy group she works with that tries to bring attention to children whose parents have been sent to prison.
“Most of the time, I was with younger African-American women,” she said. “I saw the anguish they went through about their children.”
One young woman, who had gone to prison for selling drugs to raise money for her rent, had to leave her child behind with the child’s great grandmother.
“She didn’t get to see her but maybe twice that year because transportation is an issue,” Phipps said.
As a member of the board of Our Children’s Place since 2007, Phipps said she’s been trying to bring attention to the struggles mothers, fathers and children face when they are not able to maintain their relationships.
‘Kids are forgotten’
Another board member is Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue, who was invited to become a member of the board two years ago.
“I was really struck by the Bill of Rights for Children of Incarcerated Parents,” he said.
The first right is that the child has a right to be kept safe and informed at the time of the parent’s arrest.
Blue was a little ashamed he hadn’t spent more time thinking about the children left behind when a parent goes to prison or jail.
“Since that time I’ve really learned about the positive impacts that happen between the folks who are incarcerated and the families who are outside,” he said.
One thing he’s learned is that when incarcerated parents are able to maintain their family ties, there is less chance of recidivism, or repeat offenses.
“In many ways, kids are forgotten,” he said. “These are the kids who are going to be the future of our communities.”
Spreading the word
The non-profit agency originally planned to build a facility for incarcerated parents serving low-level sentences that would enable them to maintain their family relationships, but there wasn’t enough funding for that, so now it focuses on advocacy, Blue said.
Its director, Melissa Radcliff, travels the state talking to ministers, teachers, elected officials, anyone who will listen about the ways they can support children of incarcerated parents.
Based on estimates that she thinks are low, there are about 24,000 children in North Carolina with a parent in prison.
One way the organization is spreading the word is through a program from Sesame Street, in which one of the characters, Alex, has a father who is in prison. It’s an opportunity to start a conversation, she said.