Noozhawk Article re Baby Elmo Project in Santa Barbara Co.

January 13, 2012

County’s Baby Elmo Program Reunites Incarcerated Teen Parents with Their Children

By Lara Cooper  |  Noozhawk  —

Baby Elmo programs in Santa Barbara County, one in Santa Maria and one at Los Prietos Boys Camp, teach incarcerated parents how to play and interact with their babies. All of the visits are videotaped, and Georgetown University researchers are measuring the amount of bonding between the fathers and children.

Participants learn to play and interact with their babies, while researchers study how the interactions could prevent recidivism over the long term.

What was once a sterile visitation room, holding nothing inside its beige cinder-block walls but a few tables, has been transformed. That room at the Santa Maria Juvenile Hall is now filled with brightly colored toys, a floor mat of alphabet letters and a floor-to-ceiling wall painting of Sesame Street character Elmo.

It’s here, inside the now cheerful room, that jailed young men and women are allowed to spend time with their young children as they serve time for crimes they’ve committed. For many of these teens, this room is where they see their children for the first time.

It’s all part of the 10-week Baby Elmo program, which has been working quietly behind the scenes to keep teen parents who are in jail connected with their young children.

Essentially, Baby Elmo is a parenting class, but the curriculum doesn’t cover basics such as changing diapers. Instead, it teaches participants how to play and interact with their babies and to establish a bond. The program takes its name from the Sesame Street videos shown at each of the parenting sessions.

The effort was put forward by researchers in 2007 at the Georgetown Early Learning Project, the Youth Law Center, and partnered with several probation departments in California. The groups are studying how the infants respond to the incarcerated parent, and the study will also look at how the interactions could prevent recidivism over the long term.

Two Baby Elmo programs were started last April in Santa Barbara County, one in Santa Maria and one at Los Prietos Boys Camp.

“The hope is that the detainees become engaged with their kids and want to take responsibility and want to do better,” said Laurie Holbrook, a Los Prietos supervisor involved with the program.

She recounts a story of a man who held his child for the first time in custody.

“He just held that baby and sobbed,” Holbrook said. “A lot of them do want to participate, and it’s bittersweet.”

Every week there’s a lesson that covers things such as how to talk with the babies, “basic stuff that we take for granted,” she said. “We’re finding a lot of these kids don’t have anyone to model from.”

And every week they meet with the group of boys, who will get visits with their babies, usually for an hour. The child’s mother or a care provider brings the child into the playroom for one-on-one time with the father. While the mom stays on site, in case any problems should arise, the father and child are given the chance to bond on their own.

At Los Prietos, about a half-dozen young men have gone through the program to date. All of the visits at both programs are videotaped, and the Georgetown researchers are measuring the amount of bonding between the fathers and babies.

Holbrook said the young men realize that it’s a privilege to be involved with the class.

The visitation room at Santa Maria Juvenile Hall for the Baby Elmo program offers a warm welcome for parents and children, with brightly colored toys, a floor mat of alphabet letters and a floor-to-ceiling wall painting of Sesame Street’s Elmo.

“They’re realizing it’s a huge leap,” she said. “They really get it.”

Nancy Farrah-Taylor, who supervises the program in Santa Maria, echoes the sentiment.

“They had to work for it,” she said of the teens in the program. “They knew if they got into a fight or were disrespectful with staff, they would forfeit their chance to be part of the program.”

As a result, Farrah-Taylor said the behavior within the institution improved during the 10-week program. The hope is that the teens will connect with their children, and in turn think about life choices in the future.

“We want them to think twice about coming back into custody,” she said.

If some of the men do go to prison, “it’s unfortunate, but it’s still allowing that relationship,” Farrah-Taylor said.

The Baby Elmo program has reached out to more young men in custody than women so far in Santa Barbara County.

“When these girls get pregnant, it changes a lot of things for them,” Farrah-Taylor said.

Since the program started, girls have come in who are pregnant and are released just before delivery. In all, the Santa Maria program has put seven teens through the program.

The Santa Barbara County Probation Department has been funding the program with a discretionary account, and includes monies that come from the wood-splitting business run by Los Prietos Boys Camp. Churches also have made donations, and Farrah-Taylor said start-up money was enough to purchase DVDs and televisions for the rooms.

She said that because the moms don’t have any contact with the men in custody, it was important for the department to provide an incentive for the mothers to bring the babies to the program. Diapers and toiletries such as lotions, wipes and soaps are always needed to send home with the moms, and Farrah-Taylor said donations are welcome.

The person behind all of the information gathered during the parent-child sessions is Rachel Barr, a developmental psychologist and researcher at Georgetown. Her work focuses on how babies view television, and by incorporating videos of Baby Elmo into the class time with parents, it presented a face that the teens and their kids recognized.

As Barr and her research team viewed the videos of the sessions, they found that as the parents became more responsive over time, the babies would respond more as well.

Barr said they wanted to know if the project was feasible at all, and also to find out if interacting with the babies could change behavior over time. She said one of the most surprising findings they’ve seen is that younger babies bond more quickly to the incarcerated parent than children closer to toddler age.

“It’s not too early to start,” said Barr, adding that it’s also been exciting to hear officials from different sites call in to talk about what’s been working. “The behavior of the youth seems to improve with the program. It’s an important thing to them. It changes how they view the world when they know there’s a little baby depending on them.”

Although that finding is anecdotal for now, Barr said other groups are working to document any changes that occur across time.

The reflections the students statewide have written while in the program seem to indicate a change in behavior and are deeply moving. One young man, serving a life sentence, said the weekend Baby Elmo classes are the only chance he gets to see his young daughter.

“My heart melts when I see my daughter laughing and smiling,” he said. “If it wasn’t for this program, I’d be a stranger to my daughter. She wouldn’t even know I exist.”

Serving a life sentence makes him want to lose control sometimes, he said, but he knows the classes are a privilege that can be taken away.

Of the few men participating in the program with similar sentences, “it’s all we got and all we’ll ever have,” he said.

— Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at lcooper@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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