December 3, 2016

Arkansas Voices for the Children Left Behind

Strengthening Families Affected by Incarceration

When Dee Ann Newell was a girl, her father struggled with mental illness and was taken to the state hospital.

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“There were bars on the windows, and I thought he’d been put in jail,” she said.

It wasn’t until years later, when she began work with Arkansas Voices for the Children Left Behind, that she understood the impact that experience made in her life, and how it allowed her to relate to the cause she works so diligently to promote. To say that Dee Ann feels strongly about this topic is an understatement. When I spoke with her, the passion and caring in her voice was unmistakable.

“I understand what it is like to feel stigmatized as a family, and I feel a very real connection to the cause of these children and their parents.”

Arkansas Voices is the 3rd oldest non-profit organization of its kind in the United States, advocating and working for the children and families left behind due to incarceration. Their goal is to advocate for the children left behind, provide mentoring and assistance to those children, their caregivers, and the incarcerated parents. The ultimate goal is to strengthen and empower the family unit.

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“There is a proven correlation between strong family ties and low recidivism. Our organization wants to do everything possible to promote that,” Dee Ann says.

The need for this type of non-profit in our state is paramount. According to Dee Ann, there are 70,000 children left behind due to parental incarceration in our state, and Arkansas has one of the highest rates per capita in the United States.

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“It’s a loss for mothers, and a loss for children. It’s a stigmatizing loss that they feel they can’t talk about. Arkansas Voices provides a safe place and a community where they can talk about it and receive the help they need. We have to remember that the kids have done nothing wrong, and they miss their parents terribly.”arkansasvoices2

The amount of services provided by Arkansas Voices is substantial, ranging from parenting classes in jail and at the Arkansas State Hospital, developing co-parenting agreements, support groups and services for caregivers, school-based services, reunification and re-entry services for prisoners and their families, drug and alcohol education, family literacy programs and advocacy for children in the foster care systems.

According to Dee Ann, the main challenge for Arkansas Voices is the same as all non-profit organizations, and that is one of funding and public awareness.

“We struggle to stay funded. We struggle to keep people’s attention on the children. We received state legislation that brought a lot of funding and publicity in 2003, but then the spotlight slowly faded. We are constantly trying to come up with new ways to keep the word out.”

But at the end of the day, Dee Ann’s motivation is very clear and very personal. It’s not an organization that deals with hypothesis and conjecture but in the brass tacks of reality.

“A child came to me once and said, ‘My best friend’s parents won’t let me come over to their house anymore, and they won’t let my friend come to my house since my mom went to prison.’ These are the things that break your heart and remind you to work harder. These children are struggling to maintain normalcy. They are not necessarily abused or neglected children. People are often confused about that. They deserve the best chances.”

If you are looking for a child-centered organization to donate your money or your time, please consider Arkansas Voices for the Children Left Behind. You can find out more about how to donate monetarily, or how to volunteer, on their website www.arkansasvoices.org or by calling (501) 366-3647.

Liz Harrell

Arkansas Women Bloggers member Elizabeth Harrell is a native Arkansan, author, and freelance writer. Her book, My (not so) Storybook Life, was published in 2011. Her blog projects have been featured in At Home Arkansas, Apartment Therapy, Design Sponge, and Better Homes and Gardens. Visit her at https://elizabeth-harrell.com .