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On a rare warm afternoon in early December, Chase Brown, 9, his mother, Lakeyea, and his sisters, Peyton and Madison Johnson, were in the front yard of their house in Southwest Little Rock, soaking up the last bit of sun the city would see for more than a week. Still in their school clothes and the weekend stretched out before them, the kids were a knot of activity, Chase and his sisters all smiles, chasing each other around the yard as their mother and a friend looked on, unable to keep from smiling themselves.
It's a far cry from where Chase was headed a few years ago, his mother said, before he started counseling and group sessions with Arkansas Voices for the Children Left Behind, which (among other services) helps children who have a parent in prison.
A shy, smiling boy who gave only one-word answers to the reporter's questions, Chase has been in programs offered by Arkansas Voices since he was 7. When Chase was 2 and a half, his father was tried and convicted on several charges, including, Lakeyea said, armed robbery, eluding police, and kidnapping. He's currently serving a 27-year sentence at a federal penitentiary in Oklahoma. He'll be eligible for parole around the time Chase graduates from high school. The family hasn't had the money to go visit him since he went to jail, and the lack of a male role model for her son weighs on Lakeyea Brown.
"Him being a boy, I really can't guide him and teach him how to be a man," Lakeyea said. "It's going to be hard in his teenage years, because I really don't know how to deal with his feelings and emotions about his father being incarcerated."
Lakeyea said she has friends and family members with children with a parent in prison. Often, she said, "those are the more troubled kids. They get in trouble, bad grades, a lot of acting out at home and in school."
Early on, Lakeyea worried that her son might fall victim to those same forces. When he was around 4 or 5, she noticed a change in him. "I found out that he was getting bullied over the fact that his dad was incarcerated," she said. "It took a toll on his personality. He wasn't the same kid that I was used to seeing. He was scared to speak his mind."
After seeing a pamphlet for free counseling and intervention programs offered by Arkansas Voices for the Children Left Behind at the Head Start office at UAMS, Brown called director Dee Ann Newell and has been working with her ever since.
"It's trying to help children cope with the fact that their parent is incarcerated," Brown said. "They give them counseling, have meetings once a month. They try to help financially, but they really don't have any funds to do anything right now. [Newell] helped with his birthday and Christmas and Thanksgiving, too. Sometimes she comes out of her pocket to help because she doesn't have the funds."
Since Chase started programs with Arkansas Voices for the Children Left Behind, Brown has noticed changes in him that often set him apart from other children she knows have a father in prison. He gets As and Bs in school, she said, and rarely gets into any kind of trouble. He's very respectful to everyone he meets. And that smile. Though children with an incarcerated parent are much more likely to go to prison themselves, Brown said she believes the help and counseling Chase is receiving through the program will help him break that cycle.
"I really do," she said. "In the program, there's a lot of kids who are in the same situation he's in, and they can talk about it openly and not be judged. Maybe they can help each other to deal with their parent being incarcerated."
Arkansas Voices for the Children Left Behind is headquartered at 1818 N. Taylor St. in Little Rock. Dee Ann Newell is the director. In addition to counseling for the children of incarcerated parents, the non-profit offers parenting classes in prisons and at the Arkansas State Hospital, re-entry programs to help connect prisoners and their families prior to release, advocacy for children in foster care, and support for "kinship caregivers" who are raising the children of incarcerated or otherwise absent relatives, and other services. For more information or to make a donation, visit arkansasvoices.org, call 366-3647, or email Newell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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