TAMPA — Five-year-old Nevaeh Watson fidgeted in her seat, licking her red candy pop as her grandmother straightened the large white bow holding her long curls in place.
Mary Harris chatted with her daughter, Nichole Harris, using a skype-like camera set-up at Abe Brown Ministries.
A split screen showed Mary and her granddaughter on one side and her daughter on the other side, sitting in a room inside Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala where she is finishing a 5 1/2-year drug-related prison sentence.
After a while, the youngster opened her mouth to reveal to her mother a newly missing lower tooth. They talked about what she’ll be for Halloween and how she is doing in kindergarten.
Every week, the family meets like this and will do so through Dec. 16, the day Nichole Harris is scheduled to be released from Lowell, a culinary certification in her hand that could help her find a job and a five-year-old relationship with Nevaeh that she would not have had without the help of Abe Brown Ministries and its video visitation program.
Nevaeh was just six weeks old when her mother went to prison.
This year, the Children’s Board is providing $25,000 to fund this ministry. The board anticipates providing the weekly visitation opportunity to at least 35 children and 20 caregivers. Counseling, referrals, and links to other resources and other supportive services that can help strengthen family dynamics and reduce stress are also included, said Joanna Cheshire, pubic affairs director for the board.
The Children’s Board agreed to fund the video visitation because Abe Brown Ministries provides parenting skills to incarcerated mothers while engaging them with their children, Cheshire said.
Using the video program, Abe Brown Ministries has found a way for mothers to interact with their children while they are behind bars, in an effort to better prepare them for their role as parents when they are released, said Robert Blount, III, president of the ministry on North 29th Street.
This program — called Children in Hillsborough with Incarcerated Parents, or CHIPS — is a collaborative effort between Abe Brown, the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County, which funds it, Big Brothers & Big Sisters, which seeks out mentors for the children, and the Children’s Services Network in Miami, which provided the camera equipment at Lowell.
“These women could be incarcerated for anything from drug-abuse related charges, to bad checks, not necessarily violent crimes,” Blount said. “In most instances, they will eventually be reunited with their children. This program really reduces the stress on the caregiver and reduces the stress on the kid because they get to see mom.”
It has helped Harris’s children a great deal, their grandmother said.
“I used to take the kids up there (Lowell Correctional Institution) to see her every month or so and Kyle, who is 13, would get very frustrated and aggravated leading up to the visit,” Mary Harris said. “A very lovable child would turn into a very agitated, out-of-control kid.”
Since the weekly video visits began, she said, Kyle has remained calm and composed.
“Right away, the situation was better for him,” Mary Harris said. “He even started jotting down notes of things he wanted to remember to talk to his mom about, or tell her about.”
It also gives Nichole Harris an opportunity to interact with and even discipline the children about how they are dealing with their grandmother, she said.
Thursday Ingram is serving a 30-year sentence for assault, a crime brought on by drugs, said her mother, Rosalind Davis, who is raising Ingram’s three daughters.
“This ministry has been a blessing to us,” Davis said. “It allows us to reach out to my daughter and let her know the love still goes on, that we all still love her.
“I’ve had these kids since they were born into this world,” she said. “But I teach them that no matter what, to love their mom.”
And during the video visits, Ingram encourages the children to do well in school, listen to their grandmother and generally learn to be good citizens, Davis said.
“This population is often pushed aside, set aside,” Blount said. “And reality is that they are coming out of prison, eventually. We are driven by our faith to serve the least of these. We’ve got to reduce the crime. Gainful employment is one of the greatest crime prevention tools we have.”
Abe Brown is working to replicate a nationally acclaimed program called Ready for Work, centered around putting convicted criminals back to work and making them productive members of society, Blount said.
The ministry has received $250,000 from the state to replicate the program, but won’t cover start-up costs.
“We need to engage the local community for at least a $250,000 match,” he said.
To learn more about Abe Brown Ministries, visit www.abebrown.org. To learn more about the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County, funded by the taxpayers, go to www.childrensboard.org.