National non-profit aims to help families affected by incarceration in Prince Albert

Children got to meet Elmo and Cookie Monster at the 'Strengthening Families Affected by Incarceration' event at the John M. Cuelenaere Library on Nov. 16, 2019. (Jayda Noyes/Daily Herald)

“You’d think it would get easier over time…the opposite is true.” – Louise Leonardi

The Canadian Families and Corrections Network (CFCN) estimates there’s 560 innocent children in Prince Albert impacted by an incarcerated family member.

According to executive director Louise Leonardi, those children are two to four times more likely to follow in their parents’ footsteps.

That’s why the non-profit organization hosts ‘Strengthening Families Affected by Incarceration’ across Canada.

The event took place at the John M. Cuelenaere Public Library on Saturday afternoon. It centred around Sesame Street characters showering kids in hugs and high fives, but also brought parents face-to-face with people in the community who are there to help them.

This includes representatives from the YWCA, Parkland Restorative Justice, the Salvation Army and Catholic Family Services.

“What’s a child’s life supposed to be like?” Leonardi asked the crowd.

“Is it supposed to be about confusion and fear as their parent is taken away to prison? No. Is it meant to be about feeling lonely and depressed and not functioning well, maybe at school, because they miss their parent in jail? No.”

Instead, she suggested, children should have smiles on their faces as they make pancakes on the weekend and look up at the sky imagining pictures in the clouds.

Having an incarcerated parent can severely impact a child, she explained. This can lead to mental health issues, aggression and troubles in school.

“Half of the income walks into the jail, so that family is left with all the bills that you normally have, but now only half the money,” said Leonardi. This means families may struggle to buy every day necessities for their children, such as food and clothing.

“No one has a direct responsibility to assist the children affected by crime, so that means it’s everyone’s responsibility.”

Louise Leonardi, executive director of the Canadian Families and Corrections Network, speaks at the John M. Cuelenaere Library on Nov. 16, 2019. (Jayda Noyes/Daily Herald)

Police Chief Jon Bergen made a speech to the children.

“I know that not every time you meet a police office is positive, but I want you to know that you can absolutely trust the police 100 per cent. They’re there to make sure people are safe. It’s your safety and it’s your future and it’s your wellbeing that we’re most concerned about,” he said.

Dr. Java’s Coffee House supplied cookies and Superstore provided cake for the event. Additionally, the library and the Prince Albert Literacy Network donated books for the families to take home, and the Salvation Army donated toys.

Elmo and the Cookie Monster spent the afternoon making crafts and bonding with the kids.

The CFCN runs the Dad HERO (Helping Everyone Realize Opportunities) project nationally; locally, it’s offered by Parkland Restorative Justice.

The project helps incarcerated dads transition back into their family lives by teaching parenting skills.

“Families have it very difficult,” added Leonardi. “You’d think it would get easier over time.”

“The opposite is true. It gets more and more difficult as that person goes on, and when they try to come home, that reintegration and that reunification back into the family is challenging.”

If you are affected by a loved one in the criminal justice system, contact the CFCN at 1-888-371-2326 or through their website.

For more information on the Dad HERO project, email info@parklandrj.com or call 306 763-6224.