BLACK RIVER FALLS / CHIPPEWA FALLS, Wis. (WEAU) Victims of a crime are often seen as people who were targeted, robbed or attacked, but there are more than two million others who suffer long after the case is closed.
The number of children with a parent in jail or prison in the U.S. has more than quintupled since 1980. One in 28 kids have a mom or dad in custody, according to a recent Pew Research study.
Turning four, PJ Green Grass's grandparents and sister came to celebrate with her mom.
“(PJ) is real spunky, like outgoing and stuff like that. They're fun awesome kids, fun to be around,” Marcella Redbird, PJ’s mom, said.
It was the first time Redbird of Black River Falls, had been in the same room with her daughters since she was sent to jail in June, two years after making a damaging and dangerous mistake.
“I was just intoxicated and trying to go home and I picked my kids up on the way home and I just must've fell asleep at the wheel,” Redbird said. “It was bad, my oldest one got hurt. She got a broken arm … and the next day I ended up coming here.
Her parents have been taking care of their granddaughters, Cella and P.J.
“I don't know if she understands it by now, but the only thing she's hurting is the kids,” Marcella’s father, Tony Redbird said.
Robert Willi of Chippewa Falls was arrested last fall for his fourth Operating a Vehicle While Intoxicated violation in five years. He was sentenced to a year in jail, but he's not the only one being punished. His five-year-old son Jheric, was without his dad.
“That's my number one question is how's he doing? What's he been doing, is school going good and has he been listening to his mom and just all those questions,” Willi said.
Marcella Redbird and Willi are just two of more than one million inmates nationwide with kids under 18. Therapist and UW Eau Claire psychology instructor Tammy Bednar said that separation can have major emotional and financial impacts with ripple effects that spread even further.
“I feel sad if I don't see her,” Cella Green Grass said.
Helping kids understand is the goal of the new Sesame Street kit: Little Children Big Challenges: Incarceration.
“When you have a show like that that kids are exposed to, they begin to get the message, that wait a minute, not only am I not alone, but I can talk about this,” Bednar said.
The kit encourages kids to express their feelings, to write letters and draw pictures to stay in contact.
Some jails will allow inmates to be in the same room with family, others, such as Jackson County, only allow visits through glass using a phone. Some, like Eau Claire County only use video, with visitors in another room. Buffalo County won't allow inmates to see their kids, with their only contact over the phone.
“It's really unfortunate that the system doesn't allow for more connection.” “Ultimately, that disconnection is more damaging than anything,” Bednar said.
Bednar said kids with parents in custody can have a hard time understanding the process.
“They might get that, oh, they did something wrong. But a four or five year old doesn't have a conceptual idea of what three months is in jail or what a year is in prison,” she said.
“I think when I get bigger, she will get out,” Cella Green Grass said.
“It was really hard when (Jheric) came down (to the jail) because I remember him saying dad did you kill somebody? And he kept on asking me that. And I just kept saying, no I didn't kill anybody,” Willi said.
PJ's birthday celebration didn't last long.
“It's hard. It is. Just worrying and stuff, making sure they're all ok and stuff where they're at,” Marcella Redbird said. “I know I gotta change. Because I do miss my kids.”
Marcella Redbird was sentenced in Oct. to spend the next two years at the Taycheedah Correctional Institution in Fond du Lac.
“I just gotta accept what's gonna happen, and try to better myself,” Redbird said.
Although he doesn't have custody, Willi was released on Halloween and has that chance to change for his child.
“It's just an unreal feeling; I’m just really happy to see him and can't wait to see him again,” Willi said.
Area jails are working to open up communication by putting in online video calling or recording a parent reading a story and sending it to their kids on a DVD.