A new library program helps incarcerated parents stay connected to their children

Suzanne Pickering, a felony attorney at the Department of Public Defense, said it meant a lot to her client to be able to read a storybook to her two children, even if it was from within the King County jail and into a camera.

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Deborah Sandler, a children’s services librarian, stands in front of some of the books she and Lauren Mayer selected for Seattle Public Library’s new Read to Me! program.

The client has been behind bars for two years, awaiting trial on felony charges. Her two children – one of whom was born while she was in jail – visit her every week, and her connection to them is strong, Suzanne said. “But the only way they can see her is through the glass, and she wanted them to be able to hear her voice.”

“It was very meaningful to her,” Suzanne added. “She was happy to be able to connect with them in a different way.”

That “different way” was via Seattle Public Library’s new “Read to Me!” program, started earlier this year in an effort to help incarcerated parents in the King County jail maintain or even strengthen bonds with their children. The program is a joint project with SPL, the King County Department of Public Defense, and the King County Correctional Facility.

Parents of children age 7 or younger volunteer for the program via their public defender. Once jail administrators approve the parents’ participation, they spend three consecutive evenings working with children’s services librarians from SPL – learning about the importance of reading aloud to children and how to do it well, then selecting a picture book, practicing it, and finally reading it into a camera. The librarians encourage the parents to engage with their child while they read – to say their child’s name, point at pictures, and add their own observations.

The finished product – a DVD or video file of the recording on a flash drive – is then given to the child, along with a copy of the book. The parent writes a personal message in the book as well. As an added touch, the child also receives a picture book called Far Apart, Close in Heart: Being a Family When a Loved One Is Incarcerated, a tender look at children who are experiencing the pain, anger, and confusion of having lost a parent to incarceration.

“It’s basically an early literacy workshop, except we go to them, and their children aren’t there,” Deborah Sandler, a children’s services librarian, said of the program.

Deborah and her colleague Lauren Mayer came up with the idea of a jail-based reading program after a community listening project, where they realized how many formerly incarcerated people they serve in the downtown library as well as the significant unmet need right in the library’s backyard.

“The jail is three blocks from the library, and there are tons of incarcerated parents there, and we realized there was a great need for services,” Deborah said. “We kept hearing that successful re-entry begins during incarceration. We also heard about how much trauma is done to the parent-child relationship due to incarceration.”

The two librarians began to do some research, learning about a successful program offered by the New York Public Library at Rikers Island. With partial funding from SPL’s foundation, which supports community engagement efforts, they were able to start “Read to Me!” – offering the first session in April of this year.

Deborah discussed the program in the children’s section at the downtown library recently, a spread of picture books on the counter in front of her. She and Lauren have selected 30 titles for parents to choose from – including classics, such as Goodnight Moon and the Frog and Toad collection, as well as books that speak to children from diverse backgrounds, such as Niño Wrestles the World, Green Is a Chile Pepper, and Lola Loves Stories. The books are vibrant, rich, humorous, and gentle – all deeply appropriate for children who are struggling with the pain of an absent parent.

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One of the books every child receives is Far Apart, Close in Heart: Being a Family When a Loved One Is Incarcerated.

The program is offered quarterly. So far, Deborah and Lauren have led one group for mothers and one for fathers. They’re now gearing up for their third group, with mothers, which will run on Sept. 17, 18, and 19. (Release of Information forms are due to SPL by Sept. 11.) This is the program’s pilot year, Deborah said. She and Lauren are seeking funding for a second year, with an eye towards offering the program monthly.

Towards the end of the interview at the library, Deborah led the way into her office and powered up her computer, sharing one of the videos — a recording of Suzanne Pickering’s client reading Niño Wrestles the World. The mother was hesitant and shy at first, Deborah recalled, but after practicing she gained confidence. The recording shows her smiling, laughing, reading with inflection, and pointing to the character Niño, bringing the book close to the camera as she does so.

Deborah smiled as she watched it. “It took her a few takes, but she read this book beautifully. I love the character in her voice.”

“We’re giving them the tools we give other parents in Seattle, but we also know these parents are experiencing trauma,” Deborah added. “Like all parents, they want to be close to their kids. It’s very moving. And it’s hard, too.”

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