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Children of the Penal System Learn Hope on the Dance Floor

Inspired by Orange is the New Black, Sheena Jeffers uses dance to reach kids with parents behind bars.

What happens to the children of the men and women behind bars? Illustration by Jean Wei

Despite the smiling invitations from the teacher to join in, one little girl in the corner of the bright, aqua-painted studio refused to dance. Instead, she hid behind her mentor, occasionally peeking out at the others as they played. A cool autumn breeze blew in through the open studio door. It was the first day of classes at Dance Camp, created by activist Sheena Jeffers, in association with the Mentoring Children of Prisoners program at Seton Youth Shelters in Virginia Beach.

As the class wore on, the girl inched her way toward Jeffers. Eventually, she was standing so close that her little hand was resting lightly on top of Jeffers’ at the ballet barre. By the end of class, she was using French ballet terms and dancing with abandon. “I haven’t seen a smile that big on that little face in a long time,” said the girl’s shelter mentor.

For most people, Piper Kerman’s prison memoir Orange is the New Black was merely entertainment. For Jeffers, it was a call to action. She saw the heartache of women watching their children grow up from afar. She wondered how the kids dealt with the incarceration of their loved ones from the other side. Approximately 1.7 million U.S. children have a parent in prison. Half of these children are under the age of 10. Between 1991 and 2007, the incarceration of mothers increased 122 percent and that of fathers increased 76 percent.

In state prison, more than half of mothers reported living with at least one of their children before arrest, compared with 36 percent of fathers, while 11 percent of mothers and 2 percent fathers reported having a child in foster care. Among federal inmates, mothers were two and a half times more likely than fathers to report living in a single-parent household before their arrest. In addition to creating a family disruption, parental incarceration can negatively impact a child’s physical, mental, social, and emotional wellbeing, as well as present and future educational attainment.

“As a group, children of incarcerated parents are at increased risk for both internalizing (e.g., depression, anxiety, withdrawal) and externalizing (delinquency, substance use) behavior problems, cognitive delays, and difficulties in school,” according to Rebecca Shlafer, a University of Minnesota pediatrics professor specializing in child development. “The associations between parental incarceration and poor developmental outcomes are complicated, however, because [they] often experience many additional challenges—like poverty, parent substance use, parent mental health problems, exposure to domestic violence—that could compromise a family’s stability and a child’s developmental outcomes.”

Jeffers had recently quit her office job to pursue her passion for movement by earning a master’s in dance education. The 29-year-old, relentlessly positive redhead says she is especially interested in how dance can help end the cycle of domestic violence. “I want to teach kids enough confidence that when they grow up, they will be able to stand up for themselves and walk away from violent situations. That’s a lofty goal for a dance class, but I really believe dance can teach that.”

In 2013, Jeffers was inspired to email Seton Youth Shelters. “I have an idea,” she wrote. “ I believe—implicitly and unquestionably—in dance’s ability to refresh hurting hearts, spark curiosity in minds, wake up a tired body and motivate an exasperated soul.” Her proposed program involved ten weeks of free weekend dance classes in various styles—ballet, jazz, hip hop—culminating in a recorded performance students could show family and friends. The shelter was on board as long as the classes were open to any youth associated with its many outreach programs, or whose parent is a volunteer mentor.

Using social media Jeffers found teachers willing to donate their time, and a studio down the street from the shelter able to lend their space. “The momentum was exhilarating,” Jeffers said. She even tweeted Kerman “to thank her for inspiring me to put all of this into action.” Kerman e-mailed her back. “She loved the project and wanted to hear more. She thanked me for getting involved. I was so giddy, I did a happy dance in the middle of the line at Starbucks.”

Many dance companies have outreach programs that involve teaching classes or workshops in low-income area schools, and some prisons have dance classes for inmates, but few programs exist solely for teaching dance to children of prisoners. Groove With Me is a Harlem, New York dance studio that provides free classes to the neighborhood’s girls while the Judy Dworin Performance Project in Hartford, Connecticut, runs performing arts intervention programs for inmates at the local women’s prison and for youth with an incarcerated parent. Similar programs exist in cities like Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Los Angeles and Houston (among others)--but are still rare. Mentoring programs, on the other hand, are a promising form of support for children of prisoners. In addition to preventing problem behavior, they can improve overall wellbeing. An analysis of 73 evaluations on the effectiveness of youth mentoring programs found that mentored youth exhibited positive gains in behavioral, social, emotional, and academic areas, while non-mentored youth exhibited declines. The National Dance Education Organization notes that: “Dance is a powerful ally for developing many of the attributes of a growing child. Dance helps children mature physically, emotionally, socially, and cognitively.”

Director of the Mentoring Children of Prisoners program Jessica Redding Schwabe told me “They are learning dance technique, but also learning that they are limitless.” Schwabe continues: “One student said ‘ballet makes me feel like a superhero princess.’” When the mentors heard that the program was going to be offered again this year, “everyone was beyond excited.”

Approximately 1.7 million U.S. children have a parent in prison, and half of these children are under the age of 10. Jeffers’ class gives these children mentorship and support outside the home.

Dance Camp returned for its second year this spring at Todd Rosenlieb Dance Center in Norfolk, Virginia, where Jeffers is now school director. Thanks to her fundraising efforts, she has a budget to pay teachers, provide a healthy post-class snack, and buy costumes for the performance. Jeffers doesn’t pay herself though. She sees that “these kids just want someone to be there for them, someone to dance with them.”

Eleven-year-old Jade has participated in the program both times it has been offered. “She just loves it,” her mother exclaimed. “It’s an excellent opportunity to be exposed to the arts—a cultural and social activity where she can meet new people—it’s also a great workout.” She says the program has been great for her daughter, and she is thankful to Jeffers for creating it. Learning a new skill can increase your self-esteem, especially when you enjoy it.”

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