HANCOCK COUNTY — The poster attached to the glass window hanging inside the inmate meeting room at the county jail was full of yellow sticky notes. The notes are attached to the “Goal Tree” poster, an inspirational reminder to inmates taking a parenting class that there are resources to help them interact better with their children.
“Learn how to not live in chaos and have a method for the madness,” one note written by inmate Tracie Rosson said. Another note stated, “My hope is to learn more about what my kids are doing in school and be a part of it.”
For Rosson, who has been in and out of jails for many years, it’s been almost eight years since she’s been able to be a parent to her children. But, thanks to the new parenting program offered at the county jail through the Hancock County Probation Department, Rosson is hoping her situation changes for the better when she is released from jail later this month.
“Before this class, I didn’t really know how to be a parent,” Rosson said. “This class has given me some real ‘aha’ moments and some real hope for the first time ever.”
That’s exactly what probation officer Tabitha Davis had in mind — helping inmates to become better parents — when she applied for a grant to get the program rolling at the county jail. Davis, along with fellow probation officers Lauren Schaler and Cameron Mayes, teach the 12-week class once a week. The class is offered separately for male and female inmates who want to change their lives and become better parents.
“I feel like things are going really well with the class,” Davis said. “So far, we’re seeing a pretty good completion and success rate, probably around 80%.”
The county’s probation department offers a parenting class to people while they’re on probation, but the one offered inside the jail the past several weeks is brand new. The probation officers plan to offer the parenting program for the inmates at least three different times a year.
Each weekly lesson is different with each lesson building off of the previous week’s work. The inmates are taught things like how to be better listeners through effective listening skills, how to interact better through effective speaking and effective communications skills. Week 11 lessons focused in on how to implement timeouts for kids and privilege removal while all the lessons offer good advice for people looking to do a better job with their kids.
“The first half of the classes is more nurture-based while the second half of the classes deals with more structure,” Schaler said. “I feel like a lot of the items in the curriculum even I have benefited from because it’s not like we’re here telling them we’re the best parents in the world … We let them know parenting is so hard for everyone.”
One of the other things the instructors tell the inmates is that it’s up to them what they take from the classes and what they use to have better relationships with their children. They also teach the inmates to work on their relationship skills with the people who are co-parenting their children while the inmates are serving time.
“All of the parents in our program have their children in foster care or with their relatives,” Schaler said. “Learning how to communicate in those situations with those individuals raising their kids is important.”
Davis noted it’s been rewarding seeing how those taking the classes have shared stories on how their conflict resolution has become easier with the people who are watching over their children until they can get back to the kids.
“In the past, they would never listen to listen, but were instead listening to reply,” Davis said.
Offering parenting classes at the county jail is a great idea, Sheriff Brad Burkhart said. He likes the notion of giving inmates a real chance to better themselves and in turn help their family as well as the community.
“Giving someone an opportunity to get better, that’s what we want to do,” Burkhart said. “This whole building was designed to provide these kinds of opportunities.
“There are people who have to be incarcerated,” he added, “We get that. But there are also people in jails who need opportunities, and if we can provide that and they accept that opportunity, well, why not offer it?” Burkhart said.
The inmates say they are truly thankful for the opportunity to learn how to be better parents and learn skills — skills most of them have never been taught before.
“Other jails that I have been in, they’ve never offered me this kind of help,” Rosson said. “When I was in Marion County, it was so crowded there, to try and get in on any kind of program was so hit or miss.”
As for one inmate, who didn’t want to be identified but was more than happy to talk and take part during a discussion session, she said, “I didn’t realize how much I was missing out on with my kids until I took this class.”
That was one of those “aha” moments the probation officers say they’re happy to hear about.
Burkhart noted he has seen firsthand how even one small opportunity to learn and improve oneself can make a real difference with some inmates.
“You know some inmates have never been given a chance to improve their situation and the way they live is all they know, so when some really get the chance they get engaged,” Burkhart said.
The first 12-week class wraps up next week with a final lesson on reunification with children and how to not overindulge to make up for lost time.
“A lot of parents, including myself, I’m even guilty of that,” Schaler said.
All participants who have taken part in the classes will receive certificates upon completing the program.
Davis said their expectations for the new program have been met because everyone who is taking the class (eight females and six males) while at the jail has done the work and put in a real effort.
“They’re proactive, they cooperate and they do the homework,” Davis said. “We have specific plans for each person to deal with each child.”
The probation officers say working with the inmates in the class has been a positive thing.
“It’s been very rewarding, watching them take what we have taught them and seeing them grow and really incorporate the lessons into their lives,” Schaler said.