- Associated Press - Sunday, September 25, 2016

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Kayla Bowyer was 3 months old when her mother went to jail. Her 45-year-old grandmother took care of her, and Bowyer lived with “Grams” until she was 18.

Bowyer’s mom, Rose Bowyer, was a crack cocaine addict. She was locked up multiple times during her daughter’s childhood. Kayla Bowyer had a hard time with her mom’s absence.

“My grandmother told me that I would sit and cry, just stare out of the window and cry for hours whenever she would leave,” said Bowyer, 27. “It was really hard because every time I saw her leave, I never knew when she was coming back.”

When Bowyer was 14, her aunt introduced her to Amachi Pittsburgh, a nonprofit that provides mentors to children with incarcerated parents. Bowyer’s mentor of three years was a woman named Yolanda.

The two played board games, talked and went on walks. Yolanda even took Bowyer to her first fancy restaurant.



“You don’t have to spend a lot of money on a child in order to show them that you care,” Bowyer said.

Roughly 8,500 kids in Allegheny County have a parent who is incarcerated, and 35,000 have a parent on probation or parole, said Anna Hollis, executive director of Amachi Pittsburgh.

Statewide, there are 181,000 children who have a parent in a federal, state or local prison or jail. The situation has advocates and government officials pushing for changes in criminal justice policies and calling for an end to what Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel refers to as an era of mass incarceration.

“At some point tonight, just think for a second, just put yourself in the position of one of these kids who by no fault of their own … are sitting at home right now, wondering if they’re going to lead a life of incarceration, and ask yourself are you OK with that?” Wetzel said during a recent Amachi Pittsburgh fundraising event at PNC Park.

“And if you’re not, let’s do something about it.”

Proactive versus reactive

Bowyer graduated from Carlow University in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in communications and works at Amachi Pittsburgh as an Ambassadors Coordinator.

She said the Amachi program lets young people know that even though a parent can’t be there, community members are willing to help. She said more should be done to address the issue of mass incarceration.

“I think we need to not just put money and resources into organizations that support programs, but we also need to think about the resources that we’re putting into our prison system and maybe look differently at how we incarcerate people, how many people we incarcerate, and how long we put them behind bars,” Bowyer said.

Anna Hollis, executive director at Amachi Pittsburgh, said her group is working with the state Department of Corrections on “really rethinking the way that some of these issues are addressed.”

Wetzel said the state is seeking a funding stream to help children with incarcerated parents.

Benefits of mentoring

Having a parent in jail has the same psychological effect on a child as having a parent die or go through a divorce, Wetzel said. It can bring forth feelings of trauma and shame. Financial difficulties may also arise.

Children with incarcerated parents might be worried that they could follow in their parents’ footsteps, Wetzel said. Mentoring is an effective way to keep youths on the right path, officials said.

Amachi Pittsburgh has 182 mentors. It has served more than 200 parents and children this year, and has a wait list of about 115 children who are seeking help.

In addition to mentoring, the nonprofit serves custodial and incarcerated parents and provides family strengthening and reunification and youth leadership programs.

“When I was a kid, my mom’s addiction was a bit embarrassing to me, and no child should feel embarrassed by or ashamed of their parent’s mistakes,” Bowyer said.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/2cGaqVR

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Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, https://pghtrib.com

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