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Corrections Secretary Wetzel Applauds Bill to Help At-risk Children Succeed

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel applauded a bipartisan bill introduced this week establishing a first-of-its kind public charitable trust to help children of incarcerated parents and other at-risk youth. The fund will enable young people - who because of their family circumstances or poverty or both, may be predisposed to ending up in the criminal justice system – to access educational programming and other services they need to finish school and prepare for future success. “This fund will change the trajectory that too often leads these vulnerable children to prison doors,” said Wetzel. “Let us not forget that children with parents in prison are victims, either directly or indirectly.” There are currently more than 81,000 children with parents behind bars in Pennsylvania and approximately 65 percent of inmates have at least one child. The “First Chance Trust Fund,” would be used to create scholarships and provide grants to programs that benefit those children and young people living in poverty. The trust fund would be administered by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency and would be funded by private, tax‐deductible donations and a 1 percent surcharge on vendors that have a contract with the Department of Corrections exceeding $5 million. Other Pennsylvania agencies would also have the option to include a similar provision in their contracts. The fund would not require the use of taxpayer dollars. Initially, the trust fund is anticipated to generate $500,000 to $1 million on an annual basis. The fund would be targeted to regions that have statistically higher high school dropout rates and risks of incarceration. The absence of a parent -- which some psychologists have compared to the death of a parent -- through the formative years can have deleterious effects on a child. Dealing with the emotional, social and economic consequences of that loss can trigger behavioral problems, lead to trouble in school and the possibility of dropping out and continuing the cycle of crime. “This legislation will be a game-changer for the many children with parents in Pennsylvania prisons,” said Wetzel. “We know that not finishing school is very often the first step in the downward spiral that leads to incarceration. We need to ensure that these vulnerable children instead have a ‘first chance’ to get the education, programs and support they need for success.” Representatives and students from two organizations that work with at-risk children participated in the news conference and highlighted the benefits of investing in programs that are providing children with a “first chance.” POPS (Pain of the Prison System) the Club, located at Steelton-Highspire High School, offers students who have been impacted by the pain of the prison system — those with incarcerated loved ones and those who have been incarcerated themselves — with community and emotional support, as well as opportunities to publish the writings and artwork they create through the club. "Any initiative that places an emphasis on our youth is critical to the future success of our world. Programs such as POPS shed a light on incarceration and the struggles associated with children and families when a loved one goes to prison,” said POPS art teacher Jennifer Morrison. “POPS breaks the stigma and gives children an opportunity to heal, learn and grow from the experience through creative writing and visual arts. By creating ways to fund programs like this we can ensure that students who may face a hardship do not become defined by their circumstances." Amachi Pittsburgh provides children impacted by incarceration and children facing challenges with a different path by establishing the consistent presence of loving, caring mentors. The initiative partners with secular and faith-based organizations working together to provide mentoring to children. “Tens of thousands of young people in Pennsylvania will go to bed tonight while one of their parents goes to bed in prison. And many are worried whether they will also end up behind bars in the future,” said Anna Hollis, executive director of Amachi Pittsburgh. “This groundbreaking legislation provides an innovative vehicle for children impacted by parental incarceration to have a viable first chance at a bright future, and for that, Amachi Pittsburgh commends Secretary Wetzel and our bipartisan state senators for advancing such a monumental effort." The Department of Corrections has worked to provide resources for families of inmates and help maintain family bonds. • Family days that feature activities for the kids and helpful information for parents, grandparents and guardians, facing the challenges of raising children with a parent in prison. For example, an event may feature speakers on areas of nutrition and dental health, while parents and guests are given examples of healthy snacks and easy-to-prepare meals. • Virtual visitation sites in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Erie give families and inmates in far-flung prisons the opportunity to see and hear each other. • Each facility visiting room has a “resource center” of brochures offering helpful information on how to access multiple assistance programs in Pennsylvania. • Parenting programs are also offered for inmates across the state, teaching inmates how to interact in a helpful manner with their children. • The “Read to Your Child’’ program allows inmates to be recorded reading a book aloud to their child. The book and recording is then sent home for the child to have. • The Fathers and Children Together initiative at the State Correctional Institution at Graterford is an in-depth program that teaches fathers how to interact with their children and build relationship during weekly one-on-one visits. The program, developed by the inmates, is facilitated by the Mural Arts Program of Philadelphia. • DOC works with the Pennsylvania Prison Society to provide transportation services for families to visit inmates. MEDIA CONTACT: Amy Worden, 717-728-4026 # # #