A simple piece of wood. Objectively, that’s what you see in this photo. And for most people, it’s just that.
But for our colleagues at the Civil Association of Relatives of Detainees of Argentina—known as ACIFAD for its acronym in Spanish— and for us, it’s a lot more than that. It’s the result of years of struggle, countless meetings, setbacks and ultimately progress in addressing the unique needs of children with incarcerated parents and their caretakers
So what is this piece of wood? It’s a changing station for babies in a waiting room bathroom in one of Argentina’s federal prisons. And for parents of little ones who would otherwise be changing them on the floor, it’s a big step forward. “That piece of wood reflects the commitment and effort we have all made,” says ACIFAD’s director Andrea Casamento.
Our team has been working with Andrea and ACIFAD since 2013, when we first began to develop our program focused on children with incarcerated parents. They soon became one of our trusted local partners and received financial support from our team. “That first support we received from CWS allowed us to start organizing, to buy basic and necessary supplies for our work”—but it also had another value. “That first support made us feel like someone finally saw us, that someone finally cared about us,” Andrea remembers. “It helped us start believing in ourselves.”
Together, we’ve come a long way in the last seven years. Our work has three main priorities: public advocacy on behalf of these families, developing programs that meet their unique needs and, most importantly, amplifying the childrens’ experiences in their own words.
With support from our longtime ecumenical partner CREAS, we started a pilot program called “Playing With Dad.” This involved hosting game and cultural activity events for inmates and their children at several prisons in Argentina. The result? Tons of smiles, hugs and emotions. One prisoner told us he “had never experienced anything like this inside a prison.” For the prisoners and their children, it was a chance to put down heavy burdens and simply have family time.
In 2016, we produced a documentary called Desinvisibilizar. That means “making it visible” in English. Professionals and authorities spoke about the impacts of parental incarceration on families, and it also included several children and caregivers telling their stories on camera. It was the first time those stories had been told to a larger audience in Argentina.
The following year, our joined voices got even louder. Andrea told her own story in front of 10,000 people at TEDxRiodelaPlata. Our team helped her prepare for the event and then supported her so she could travel to share her story in Chile, Uruguay, Mexico, Panama, Brazil and the United States. “Those trips, and the possibility to learn about how the subject is understood and addressed, to visit prisons elsewhere and, above all, understand that family members and children go through the same thing everywhere…it has helped us have a wider perspective. But most of all, that experience strengthened us,” Andrea says.
Over the years, we’ve found opportunity after opportunity for these families and children to tell their stories. And we’ve been able to bring children and advocates from across Latin America and the Caribbean together to learn from one another and find strength in unity. We’ve participated in publications such as Childhood and Incarceration and Beyond Prison that continue to raise awareness among those who haven’t heard yet about how having a parent in prison impacts a child’s life.
And that brings us back to today, and that simple piece of wood. We’ve had lots of metaphorical “pieces of wood” in each of these successes as we build the future that these families deserve. And our work continues.
There is draft legislation in Argentina’s congress right now that will protect the rights of these children. We’re working hard to make sure that draft is passed and becomes law soon. We know that we have a long way still to go, but we are making progress towards a future where the rights and needs of these children are folded into every protocol, program and public policy.
In partnership with Andrea, ACIFAD and others, we’re going to keep building.
Luciano Cadoni is the Program Officer for the Rights of the Child with CWS Latin America and the Caribbean.