Organization serves children of area incarcerated parents

By Matt Singer / Staf Writer

After 10 years of advocating the rights of Allegheny County children whose parents were jailed, the Pittsburgh Child Guidance Foundation is wrapping up its decadelong work and looking forward to a new initiative.

PCGF is the offspring of what used to be the Pittsburgh Child Guidance Center. Upon formation, the PCGF, a 501(c) tax-exempt nonprofit, began its work to better the emotional stability of Allegheny County’s children.

Current PCGF Executive Director Pam Golden said that it should be understood that the foundation does not provide direct services, but rather, is an organization that funds, advocates and facilitates collaboration on behalf of children.

“The first thing they did was help organizations to help children build the competence for coping with emotional reality,” Claire Walker, the former executive director of PCGF, said.

But, after its initial work, PCGF wanted people in the county to better the goals of the foundation and chose to simplify its next initiative to, as Walker phrased it, “something that people could understand on the street.”

Thus, the “Advocating for Children Whose Parents are Incarcerated” program began and ultimately extended to a 10-year course of action “to convene, to advocate and to give small targeted advances” to organizations that worked toward bettering the lives of children whose parents were in jail. 

“We see children as our future, and despite whatever feelings people may have about the needs of incarcerated parents, the children are innocent, and they deserve the chance to develop into emotionally and physically healthy, productive citizens,” Charlotte Brown, PCGF’s board president and an associate professor of psychiatry and health and community systems at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, said.

PCGF performed extensive research on the topic, making the public aware of the stark realities the affected children, who make up 12 to 15 percent of all children in the county, face. These children’s families will feel the economic drain of a wage earner for multiple generations, while the children themselves might be ostracized by their peers and negatively affected by the loss of close, functioning bonds with a parent.

Of the changes PCGF brought about through this program, many improved the programs within Allegheny County jails, and the foundation has worked to lessen the severity of the conditions for prisoners who are discharged.

Jails’ discharge centers now ensure that prisoners leaving the jail can make a phone call home. Before this change, which PCGF sought, the typical release occurred between 2:30 and 4:30 a.m. with no possibility for the discharged prisoners to call their families. They were put out as soon as the authorities processed their paperwork.

“And the guys, they said, ‘We get out and the only guy waiting for us is the dealer,’ and women said, ‘We know how to make money Downtown,’” Walker said.

But now the discharge period has been lengthened to 48 hours, giving those discharged time to make accommodations for their return. Additionally, there are now programs in place to ensure that discharged prisoners have a place to stay, something to eat and resources at their disposal to meet their needs upon leaving the jail. 

Furthermore, families now know when their loved ones are coming home thanks to the PCGF, whose research found that one of the most traumatic elements of the process for children was not knowing what time their parents would return, which could render them unable to be home to greet them.

Kathy McCauley says that although many of these programs seem like they would obviously be in place, in some cases they were never implemented. However, as PCGF contributed to the work of the Jail Collaborative, McCauley says that the foundation “really hammered [these programs] through.”

McCauley is a coordinating member of the Allegheny County Jail Collaborative, which is a product of the combined efforts of local government, the county jail system and several other organizations, including PCGF, which supplies particularly valuable input and research on family services for the Jail Collaborative.  

The Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan think tank that evaluates social and economic policy research, is currently conducting studies on the efficacy of the Jail Collaborative’s work, and the results of this research will underscore the overall impact of PCGF’s changes within the Allegheny County jail system.

Although their examination of the county jail system is not yet complete, McCauley says that the preliminary data seems to indicate that there has been a reduction in recidivism, and she feels that PCGF’s work with programs within the jails definitely played a role. 

“The bottom line is [PCGF has] been a fantastic ally to the Allegheny County Jail Collaborative,” she said. “And we are so, so fortunate to have them here in Pittsburgh.”

But while these external studies are not yet concluded, members of PCGF are nonetheless proud of their contributions to the community.

“I’m really proud of the work that we did with the community, the organizations we partnered with and the families that our programs impacted,” said Golden, “and I’m confident the changes our initiatives made will continue to have a positive impact.”

PCGF’s work also helped to inspire a Sesame Street video that’s available to organizations and support groups working with children. It features the puppets talking about children feeling sad and isolated because of their experiences but how they should remain strong and not be sad because they are not alone, as many other children go through the same tribulations.

The Administration for Children and Families announced this video  on June 12 at an event of national recognition that Walker attended. At the event, she was recognized as a “Champion of Change” on behalf of PCGF.

“The people who are doing the work, working in the trenches, really deserve to be honored, so I had the opportunity in the publicity that was generated by [the Administration for Children and Families] to honor them,” said Walker, who went on to say that she wanted to remind the entire U.S. population that everyone needs to be cognizant of what’s happening to such a large number of children because of the United States’ ever-increasing incarceration rate. 

Now PCGF is in the process of creating a new initiative. Golden said that PCGF wants to be certain that it makes the right choice and that she’s optimistic that the foundation’s next initiative will make a positive impact.

“Our goal has always been to ‘pass this work on.’ We believe that is the only way to have a sustained impact in the field,” said Brown. “Thus, all of our efforts have been guided by the knowledge that we are merely laying a foundation that others will build on.”