Parents Incarcerated: Breaking the Stigma

Display of children’s books at Cincinnati Main Library / Photo by Salvador Mendoza

Display of children’s books at Cincinnati Main Library / Photo by Salvador Mendoza

When visiting a loved one in jail or prison, guests are greeted with cold walls, metal detectors and armed security guards. Imagine making that walk as a child. As daunting as it sounds, that’s the reality for 2.7 million kids who have a parent behind bars.

With an incarcerated parent of their own, siblings David, Ava, and Joshua Martoma wanted to do something about the unwelcoming institutional atmospheres. At ages  9, 11, and 13, respectively, they became co-founders of KidsMates, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization that collects children’s books from local libraries to donate them to jail and prison visitation rooms.

The Martomas believe a child’s bond with their parent during incarceration is a crucial part of their parent's transition back into society, and the child’s transition to adolescence. They focus on books because it gives parents and kids a chance to cut tension by reading stories, flipping through illustrations, and working their vocabularies together.  

These kid-friendly additions are making an impact. The Martomas say the reaction to their books have been very positive, with one partnered facility spending $600 to fund books for inmates to give to their families. The co-founders’ mother, Rose Martoma, noticed the impact their books were having across generations when she watched a grandmother, mother and child share a Spanish book together.

Beyond the books, David says the overall mission of KidsMates is to spread awareness and improve the way communities respond to parental incarceration. The Martoma’s organization ultimately aims to educate others about the bigger picture around parent-child relationships in prison. A form of extended trauma, this situation can have a dramatic impact on children, and all too many are affected. 1 in 27 kids has an incarcerated parent.

“That’s about one kid in every classroom,” Joshua says.

The co-founders personally understand the stigmas associated with kids who have a parent behind bars. Affected children often face shame or indifference from those who don’t understand their situation. Bullying and exclusion goes hand in hand with these views, which is why Rose notes that society needs to shift from judgment to solutions.

Rose hopes to see a world where peers and mentors ask theirselves this question: “why am I judging these kids instead of improving their outcome?” She adds that trauma-sensitive teachers can be instrumental in helping kids cope with parental incarceration at school.

Since the start of KidsMates, the group has successfully collected 4,000 books and donated 1,000 to jail/prison facilities. To help find homes for the remaining books, you can let your warden know about KidsMates by explaining that they’re a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization based on education. Tell them to contact the Martomas through their site to see how they can get donated children’s books for their visiting rooms.

KidsMates founders David, Ava and Joshua

KidsMates founders David, Ava and Joshua