The Sacramento County Probation Department recently passed the one-year anniversary of its participation in “Baby Elmo” classes for its juvenile residents. The program, designed in part by Georgetown University, teaches parenting skills to incarcerated juveniles with children.
Naomi McCormack, who works with residents at the Youth Detention Facility, praised the first year’s results.
“One of the least recognized groups in our society is the children of incarcerated parents,” McCormack said. “This program does not reward the resident. It really rewards the child. They shouldn’t be punished by not getting to see their parents.”
McCormack oversees the 10-week course, which focuses on bonding and building good parenting skills. Every week, dependent on good behavior, incarcerated juveniles under the county’s authority are encouraged to spend an hour of physical contact with their child. They also watch “Sesame Street” videos that contain exercises meant to strengthen the parent-child relationship. While these skills may come natural to people who grew up in the “typical” American family, it is sometimes a foreign practice to this program’s alumni.
“A lot of these kids don’t even know how to talk to their baby,” McCormack said. “Many of the male residents have trouble giving praise to their babies. They were always treated like a man. The praise session is the hardest. They were not praised as a child. They have to learn how to give it.”
These struggles were reaffirmed by a 17-year-old female resident who has been incarcerated for nearly a year, who also has a 13-month-old son. (Because of the juvenile’s age, her name will not be disclosed in this article.)
“This program has drawn me closer to my son and taught me activities that I wouldn’t have thought were important,” the young woman said with a beaming smile. “I feel like now I’ll be able to support him better, love him better, and teach him better than what I was taught.”
The young woman opened up about her upbringing, describing a home where her father was absent and she had to help raise two younger brothers and a 5-year-old sister. Her mother struggled with problems from addiction but is now enjoying sobriety. She said the lessons she has learned have even improved her mother’s parenting skills as well.
“Other residents who don’t get to use this program are missing out on bonding with their child, and that bonding is really big,” she said. “It has made me realize my love for my son. He knows I’m his mother, and I love him.”
She also emphasized the importance of good behavior while participating in Baby Elmo.
“Being good is the most important thing in here, so I can earn the chance to see my son,” she said. “My attitude has gotten a lot better. I do everything I should. I signed a contract to become better so I can see him. Being good is a must.”
Dr. Rachel Barr, associate professor at Georgetown University, helped develop the Baby Elmo project. Working with her colleagues to consistently evaluate the effectiveness of the project through examining the recordings of project sessions, Barr has noted measurable results so far.
“Predominantly it is fathers who have participated,” she said. “Studies have shown profound effects on children when fathers are absent. We have found that emotional responsiveness increases across time. This is very exciting because emotional responsiveness is related to positive outcomes for babies.”
Talking to past participant Joseph McDowell reaffirmed Barr’s point. He was only 16 years old when he was arrested. His son was only one month old at the time. He freely admitted the effectiveness of the program on him.
“I’ll be honest with you, I’d be back in jail now without my son and the skills I learned,” he said.
McDowell said he had only seen his father twice in his whole life.
“I don’t have a relationship with him, I don’t know him,” he said, adding that his own son, Joseph McDowell, Jr., now calls him Dad. “I’m not going to act like a fool. Now, I just want to be the best father in the world.”
While originally designed with the babies well-being in mind, the Baby Elmo program has also had the unintended outcome of improving juvenile residents’ behavior as well.
“It ended up being an added bonus,” Sacramento County Chief Probation Officer Don Meyer said. “No resident has ever been expelled from the program due to behavior problems.”
“I did a lot of ‘Tail ‘em, Jail ’em’ in my career, but the first time I saw this program, I could not believe that the same kid we had in the unit who was causing trouble could be taught parenting skills,” Meyer said. “But it works. And it spills over. They start to see the advantages of making the connection with their own baby, and it shows in their behavior.”
Meyer is no stranger when it comes to finding creative ways to pay for projects like these in the current economic climate. Out of the $9,000 it takes annually to keep the Baby Elmo project running in Sacramento County, not one cent comes out of the general fund. Instead, the project is fully funded from revenue pooled from the Juvenile Hall’s “Collect Call” service. McCormack carefully tracks her hours spent on the project and endeavors to make sure that her wages during these efforts are allocated separately.
“When you look at the cost benefits, a $15,000 average to prosecute an adult in this county, another $50,000 to send them to prison if you have to — if we can reduce reoffending by 10 to 20 percent, you can save a lot on the back end.”
Judging by the popularity of the Baby Elmo project, Meyer’s calculations could be correct. Currently San Bernardino, Yolo, Santa Barbara, Fresno and Orange counties all participate in Baby Elmo. Washington, D.C. has plans to start their own program very soon. In some counties, more than one department has adopted the program.
Foreseeing consistent positive effects, Barr and the Sacramento Probation Department hope to continue teaching parenting skills to juveniles into the future.