Several Santa Barbara County juvenile detention facilities have joined the “Baby Elmo” program, which helps young incarcerated parents develop and maintain relationships with their children while serving their sentences.
Started in 2007, the Baby Elmo program is the result of a collaborative effort between Georgetown University associate professor Rachel Barr and Carole Shauffer, senior director of strategic initiatives at the Youth Law Center. The program involves a 10 week course of training exercises and videos designed by child development specialists to foster relationships between parents and their children.
Shauffer said the program will help shift the tone of juvenile detention centers, providing an unprecedented experience for inmates and correctional officers alike.
“I think the most relevant thing is that this program allows kids in juvenile institutions — who often have to put up a very tough veneer — to show a softer, more emotional side and, in turn, that allows the staff to become more emotional and supportive of those views,” Shauffer said. “It de-escalates the hard, violent nature of the institution and makes it a more habilitative environment.”
According to Shauffer, the program has improved inmate behavior already, as participants can be provided with the incentive of possible early release.
The program will be monitored by surveillance and analyzed by researchers at the Georgetown Early Learning Project. Sessions include one-on-one tasks such as exploring together, praising and playing with the child, labeling, imitation and imaginative exercises. According to the Youth Law Center, infant responses have shown a drastic increase after just two sessions with the detained parents.
Barr, a developmental psychologist, said children often exert a considerable influence on their parents, an element of the relationship that often goes unrecognized.
“[An inmate’s daughter] was coming in, and she was picking out the letters of her name [on the alphabet mat] and she was trying to spell out her name,” Barr said. “It turns out that her father had never learned to read, and as a result of interacting with his child, he decided that he really wanted to learn to read so that he could sort of have more of these interactions with his child. He got extra tutoring and intensive reading.”
In April 2011, the Los Preitos Boys Camp in Santa Barbara began converting a number of white cinderblock rooms into colorful, kid-friendly playrooms adorned with alphabet mats and Sesame Street paintings as part of the new Baby Elmo program.
Barr said the program brings out a side of the inmates rarely seen by staff at the detention centers, highlighting their difficult situations.
“These fathers are the same age as the student body,” Barr said. “These fathers are parenting from a distance and trying really, really hard to make it work. I think as a student, it would be interesting to think of the world from that perspective.”
Laurie Holbrook, assistant director at the Los Prietos Boys Camp, said she is hopeful that the program will benefit both the children and their parents in the long term.
“We hope the fathers will continue to be a part of their offspring’s lives and live their life with their children in mind, subsequently becoming a contributor to society as opposed to a detriment,” Holbrook said in an email. “As a result, their children will be raised in a more functional, loving environment and will hopefully end their family’s involvement in the criminal justice system.”