ROANOKE — As Cheddar’s Casual Cafe slowly began to fill up with the lunchtime crowd, giggles from two people in a booth stuck out.
“You know, if you order fish, they take it out of there?” said a woman, nodding toward a large tank filled with yellow and blue exotic fish.
“Really?” said a little girl, leaning against the table. “Nuh-uh.”
The two shared many laughs during their lunch at the Valley View Mall restaurant, the sources of amusement ranging from jokes to photos on the woman’s phone.
Daniel Copeland said he always notices that his daughter Kameron, the giggling little girl with a tight bun, is in brighter spirits after she returns from seeing 30-year-old Jennie Dowda.
“They’re like two peas in a pod,” Copeland said.
Dowda started spending time with Kameron, 9, last fall. She’s Kameron’s Big Sister — just not biologically. Dowda and Kameron were paired up through the Big Brothers Big Sisters mentoring program nearly a year ago. Kameron’s father thought the program would benefit her by providing a positive female role model while her mother serves out a prison sentence.
“I like her because she’s funny,” Kameron said of Dowda.
Experts say children of incarcerated parents face many challenges, from mental and physical health problems to education struggles and involvement in delinquent behavior. Mentoring programs around the country, like the one that nonprofit Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwest Virginia offers, try to support such youth by making a positive difference in the multiple areas of child development that may suffer while a parent is locked up.
While not a separate program, Big Brothers Big Sisters recognizes that children of incarcerated parents may have different needs than other youth considered to be “at-risk” — whether it be that they live in a single-parent home, have a low socioeconomic status or receive low grades. Big Brothers Big Sisters trains its employees and mentors on how to address the struggles children with a parent behind bars may face.
“When you’re a child, carrying burdens on your shoulders and a fear that is very real can be hard,” said June House, president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwest Virginia. “Throwing a Frisbee or baking cookies with a mentor can sometimes be just enough for them to think that life’s not so bad or there is hope for the future.”
About a year ago, Copeland and Kameron walked to Sweet Union Baptist Church in northwest Roanoke for a festival. He approached a Big Brothers Big Sisters booth; the people there already expected him. Kameron’s mother had sent a letter to the organization about getting her daughter involved in its mentoring program.
“My name is Nicole Copeland and I’m currently being held in the Roanoke City Jail,” she wrote in a neat script. “I left my husband and three (3) little children out there without a mom because of my poor choices. I’m from the Northern Virginia area with no family here in Roanoke. I thank God every day for my husband (Daniel), because if it weren’t for him I don’t know where my children would be. Daniel is a good father, hardworking and a provider. I know that they would greatly benefit from the mentoring program.”
Nicole Tiffany Copeland, 47, has been in and out of jail or prison for various offenses. She’s currently serving a 22-month sentence for violating probation and is housed at Central Virginia Correction Unit 13 in Chesterfield County. In 2008, she pleaded guilty to petit larceny, eluding law enforcement and driving without a license. She’s scheduled to be released Aug. 25.
Because of the long distance between their house and the prison, Copeland’s three youngest children — who also include energetic Karon, 8, and Kaniah, 7 — don’t get to see their mother much. Kameron knows about her mother’s situation, but she doesn’t talk about it.
Even for Daniel Copeland, talking about his wife causes his voice to quiver. “We stand by her and support her,” he said.
Copeland runs a busy single-parent household. He has a job in construction, which keeps the family on a tight budget, but he says it’s “good, honest money.” He and his wife also have six older children who live in Northern Virginia.
Within the family in Roanoke, Kameron sometimes assumes a caretaking role — tying a sibling’s shoe, braiding her sister’s hair or irritably rallying everyone for dinner. After her brother and sister finish their vegetables, hot dogs and macaroni and cheese, Kameron starts washing the dishes.
“I like cooking,” she said while clearing plates from the table, staying focused on the task.
Her father sees how the mentoring program has helped Kameron, such as providing her with an outlet to have some fun away from the responsibilities at the house.
“Kameron is like the mom of the house caring for the little ones, and I can see it burning her down,” Copeland said.
About 1.7 million youth in the U.S. have at least one parent currently in prison, according to a report published last fall from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Millions more have a parent in a local jail.
Lisa Kinney, a spokeswoman with the Virginia Department of Corrections, said the state does not track how many Virginia prison inmates have children.
The Roanoke City Jail, where Nicole Copeland briefly stayed before her transfer to prison, does not keep those statistics either, said sheriff’s office spokeswoman Lauren Dunne.
Experts say that in certain cases, the trauma and struggles that children face are collateral damage of the criminal actions of their parents. Research suggests that the incarceration of a parent can increase the likelihood that youth become involved in antisocial and delinquent behavior.
Joyce Arditti, a professor of human development at Virginia Tech whose research focuses on criminal justice and the effects on families, said children who have an incarcerated parent are a strongly stigmatized group.
“The stigma complicates the loss because it isolates people,” she said. “The children internalize the shame.”
Research is mixed regarding the effectiveness of mentoring services provided to children with parents who are behind bars. Success depends on a combination of variables. It’s possible that a mentor and mentee will not be compatible, or that the child’s parents are not committed enough to the program.
“One of the issues with these programs is that they can only do so much,” Arditti said.
House, with Big Brothers Big Sisters, said the Copeland family exemplifies how a family can remain committed to the mentoring program even in the face of financial or other struggles. “When all of the pieces come together, mentoring can be really effective,” House said. “For kids, it’s another person who believes in them and isn’t paid to be there.”