This “Sesame Street” episode is brought to you in part by the letter “I” for “Incarceration.”
University of Wisconsin professor Julie Poehlmann is an adviser for the Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational foundation behind “Sesame Street.” With 2.7 million children who have parents in prison or jail, the Sesame Workshop launched the “Little Children Big Challenges: Incarceration,” an initiative aimed at children with incarcerated parents on June 13.
“What I hear from most families is they don’t talk about this issue because they don’t know how or don’t even think the young kids can understand,” Poehlmann, a psychologist and professor at the UW School of Human Ecology, said. “The best thing we can do is help people bring it up and let them know it’s okay.”
The initiative created free multimedia resource kits available online with a DVD, children’s storybook and caregiver’s guide to distribute to families. The DVD features a new Muppet named Alex, whose dad is in prison, telling an adult how he feels and then receiving support from fellow Muppets Rosita and Abby Cadabby, Poehlmann said.
The initiative explains incarceration as somewhere people go and cannot leave because they broke a “grown-up rule,” a law, so children do not misinterpret everyday mistakes as grounds for incarceration, she said.
“The idea is [the Muppet] is another child to hear what it’s like to go through and hear the words that people can use. We were very careful about the words,” Poehlmann said.
She began to notice this issue as a child psychologist in upstate New York after she received referrals to assess children with mothers in prison.
Since becoming a professor in the UW Human Development and Family Studies department in 1998, Poehlmann has focused her research around working with these families to build resilience.
“I thought then, ‘Well, I need to know what the literature says to come up with better assessments and treatments,’” Poehlmann said. ”The number of kids was increasing incredibly, yet no research was done with the children themselves – some with the parents, but none with the kids.”
Fallout from incarcerations causes children to experience shame and anxiety toward their parent’s absence, which they often blame on themselves even though it is not their fault, Poehlmann said. Because the corrections system does not even ask its prisoners if they have children, the children are essentially considered invisible, she said.
Now that “Sesame Street” has put a spotlight on Poehlmann’s research, it provides space for this issue so people can step back and reevaluate their stereotypes of incarcerated people, University of Minnesota professor Rebecca Shlafer, Poehlmann’s partner on the initiative, said.
Shlafer started working with Poehlmann in 2002 as an undergraduate intern, later as a graduate student and now as a fellow professor. Together they will assess the distribution of the kits, with Poehlmann in charge of Wisconsin and Shlafer focusing on Minnesota.
Although Sesame Workshop has started the discussion, Poehlmann said supporting these families is critical and in need of help. It is likely the number of children with incarcerated parents will increase given the U.S. already has the world’s highest incarceration rates, she said.
Poehlmann said the initiative signals high incarceration rates are a problem for children because “Sesame Street” is addressing the issue.
“People need to know that whatever they feel about the parents or their crime is different from how you can help the children,” she said. “What we want to do as a society in the future is have fewer incarcerated individuals and less crime, but we just keep increasing it so that these kids are at risk for the very thing we are trying to prevent.”