According to a report in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of Children’s Ministry Magazine, kids with a parent in prison suffer significant health and behavior problems. This is according to a new study from the University of California Irvine. The study found links between having a parent in jail and higher rates of asthma, obesity, attention deficit/attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression and anxiety, learning disabilities, developmental delays, and language problems.
We interviewed Prison Fellowship President and CEO Jim Liske.
1. Of these challenges that children face, which ones does Prison Fellowship address—and how?
Prison Fellowship’s purpose is to help restore prisoners and their families to one another and to God. Through our in-prison, faith-based rehabilitative programs, we share the Gospel and work to prepare people for a successful re-entry. Family is a critical part of a child’s development and emotional and behavioral health. By returning rehabilitated men and women who love the Lord to their families, we’re helping to make sure more children have a stable home. This includes having a mom or dad to look up to—one who won’t fall back into the cycle of crime.
When moms and dads can’t come home, we’re working through our Angel Tree program to minister to these kids. We focus on their spiritual development and share Jesus with them. This way, they always have a friend to help them get through the difficulties they face. Through our Angel Tree Christmas programs, churches around the country deliver the Gospel message and gifts to hundreds of thousands of children on behalf of their incarcerated parents. This simple act lets the child know that their parent in prison loves them and has not forgotten them, and this deepened connection to their parent increases their confidence and reduces emotional difficulties such as anxiety and depression. For example, a teenager named Taylor heard from her mom this past Christmas for the first time in 11 years, and it meant the world to her.
2. What other ways does Prison Fellowship provide ministry to children whose parent is incarcerated?
After witnessing the spiritual influence of Angel Tree at Christmas, many churches feel called to extend their ministry to prisoners’ families. Angel Tree helps by providing a variety of ministry suggestions, resources, and connections with other organizations. Some churches invite prisoners’ families into an existing ministry in the church. Churches can also link up with Angel Tree Camping and help prisoners’ children spend a week at camp, away from their daily routine. At camp, they get to meet other kids in their same circumstances. They learn from camp leaders that God’s love for them is enough to get them through the hard times. Churches can also get involved in Angel Tree Mentoring, consistently providing these children with role. Prison Fellowship works through local churches to provide this year-round emotional and spiritual support for children who are at risk for following their parents down the path of incarceration.
3. Can you share a success story or two about your ministry?
Angel Tree allowed Chris and Christopher a meaningful point of connection every Christmas. Meanwhile, Chris grew more connected to God, participating faithfully in a Bible study led by a board member, Dave Cauwels. Dave had the honor of baptizing Chris in 2005.
Michelle Rainey was 15 when her mother was arrested on drug charges, leaving her the responsibility of caring for four younger siblings. Angel Tree gave her hope.
When Richard Braceful went away to prison, he felt like he had failed his wife and kids. Selena, his wife, struggled as she transitioned into being the family’s breadwinner. And their daughter, Jozelyn, worried that her dad didn’t love her because he wasn’t around.
Thirteen-year-old Wyatt walked into an Arkansas church one December evening. His aunt had insisted that he go, but she wouldn’t tell him why.
4. How can children’s ministers get involved in ministry to children whose parent is incarcerated?
The best way for a children’s pastor to get started in ministering to these is through an Angel Tree program. If his/her church doesn’t have an Angel Tree ministry, registering is the first step to meeting children who need support.
While Angel Tree starts with a gift at Christmas, it can be a powerful tool for ministry throughout the year. Families served at Christmastime need support all year round. Churches can begin a mentorship program for children of prisoners through Angel Tree Mentoring, or can start a monthly ministry program for these families to attend, where they hear more about God’s love and can fellowship with other families in similar life situations. Angel Tree has tools and resources to help with these programs. Many churches around the country also participate in Angel Tree Camping. They partner with a local Christian camp and invite the Angel Tree kids they served at Christmas to attend. They often offer financial support as well. Angel Tree Christmas can be a springboard for year-round ministry to children of prisoners.