When a family member is in jail, the children in the family can experience trauma as a result. In New Mexico, 10 percent of all children will have a parent incarcerated at some point in their lives; that’s higher than the national average of 7 percent, according to a recent study called “A Shared Sentence,” conducted by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
In Taos, there is now more support for children and families impacted by incarceration. Las Cumbres Community Services is providing support groups for kids at school and also offering assistance to their parents. In doing so, Las Cumbres is building strong relationships with other service providers in the community. Las Cumbres has been helping fill gaps in social services in Northern New Mexico for 50 years and currently has offices in Española, Taos, Chama, Los Alamos and Santa Fe.
Siena Sanderson, a family navigator with the Las Cumbres Nurturing Center at Enos Garcia Elementary School works with families throughout Taos County and is the point person for this program in Taos. “I went to court recently to support two family members,” says Sanderson. “When I got there, I knew six families on the docket. Then I realized that there were 30 children being impacted by what happened in the courtroom on just that morning.”
She points out that when a family member becomes involved in the criminal justice system, the impact on their children is profound and there is not a lot of coordinated effort to address these impacts. “Whose responsibility is it to support these children?” asks Sanderson. “I think it the responsibility of the whole community to more intentionally support them.”
Women’s Giving Circle
Much of this support work is being made possible through a 2019 grant from Women Give Taos. Helen Forte, director of community outreach at the Taos Community Foundations explains, “Women Give Taos is a Women’s Giving Circle, in which members pool their giving to have deeper impact in community. The fund is held at the Taos Community Foundation and we support and host the circle.”
Members of the group meet quarterly, as well as volunteer, learn from speakers, network, and allocate an annual $30,000.00 grant to a nonprofit organization working to support women and girls in the communities of Taos and western Colfax Counties. There is a grants committee made up of Women Give Taos members, which reviews all applications and selects the finalists. Then each Women Give Taos advisor participates in voting for the final winning organization at a special voting event, says Forte.
For 2019, the grantee was Las Cumbres Community Services for this project to address the impact of incarceration on mothers and their children. Funds were requested to support parenting support programs for incarcerated women and girls’ support groups.
“The Women Give Taos members wanted our grant to have a significant positive impact on women and girls in our community.” says Laurie Mitchell Dunn, chair of the giving circle. “Las Cumbres was able to use our funding to create new programs that wouldn’t have existed otherwise.”
Supporting kids and their families
With the grant funds, Las Cumbres has been running two after-school programs for girls at Enos Garcia Elementary School – one for students in first and second grades and the other for third, fourth and fifth grades. The girls work with art, learn cooking and attend special programs run by Twirl and other community organizations. Last fall, MiniManes brought mini-ponies for therapeutic work to both Enos Garcia and Taos Middle School.
In another collaboration, Las Cumbres worked with the Field Institute of Taos (FIT) last summer to create weekly adventures locally, including an overnight camping trip at the yurt at Bull-of-the-Woods meadow in the Carson National Forest near the Taos Ski Valley. Las Cumbres staff says that this was an incredible adventure for these girls, most of whom had never backpacked into the wilderness.
Sanderson points out that Las Cumbres pulls resources from the community and in return those community connections become stronger and allows the girls to know their community better. “Much of what we do is helping the girls build positive relationships with each other and with other adults,” she says.
The grant has helped fund parenting support at the adult detention center and other locations. Las Cumbres is seeing which programs seem to have the greatest benefit and hopes to continue to cooperate with the Taos Education and Career Center to support people who have been involved in the criminal justice system who want to return to school. “Being in jail is not all these women are. They have educational or vocational goals,” says Sanderson. “One woman who had been in jail, completed her GED and community health worker training. She is a stellar student who made the Dean’s list. Parents like this are a great inspiration to their children.”
Helping kids find their spark and achieve
When a family member is incarcerated it can create a burden on the family’s finances and they may not be able to cover basic needs like food and housing. “We are beginning to better understand how the financial burden of the judicial system impacts a family’s income,” reports Las Cumbres staff. There can be mandated treatment in or out of town that lasts for months. Other expenses can include court fees, probation costs and things like an interlock system in a car and there is often a loss of income from the parent’s time away from work.
With these additional expenses and loss of income, parents often don’t have the money to provide lessons or other special experiences for their kids. “The grant funding helps us connect kids to their spark,” explains Sanderson. “It might be gymnastics, singing or art lessons; we help the kids to connect to things they love to do and also get to know more people in the community.”
When children experience trauma from the incarceration of a family member, they bring their stress to school which interferes with their ability to learn. “We need to build trauma-informed care into the schools to build the student’s capacity academically,” says Sanderson. “We are seeing that social and emotional skills are equal to academic education. We want kids to feel competent to access everything that school has to offer.”
Las Cumbres plans to keep running the support groups for girls at the elementary school and would like to find a way to add a group for girls at the middle school and one for boys. One boy who had a family member that had been in jail said that boys have a lot of hurt, too. “We appreciate the funding for the girls’ groups, and we are looking for ways to work with all students to help them build positive relationships,” says Sanderson. “We want to help prevent the next generation from getting involved in substance abuse, so they don’t end up in a similar situation. This is our task. We believe it is everyone’s responsibility.”
How you can help
If you would like to help and have time or money to contribute, please contact Siena Sanderson at (575) 770-6343 or email email@example.com.
To find out more, visit w ww.lascumbres-nm.org. Contributions can be made on the website – designate the Nurturing Center as the purpose for your donation.