I’m so very proud of the new Miss America, Laura Kaeppeler.
First, because she is from my hometown of Kenosha, Wis., and second,
because she’s used her own experience to help a lot of hurting kids.
If you don’t know Ms. Kaeppeler’s story, it begins when her father,
Jeff, was arrested when she was a 14-year-old high-schooler. He went
to trial and was sent to serve 18 months in federal prison for mail
fraud when she was at Carthage College studying music.
This impacted Laura’s life, much like the other estimated 10
million children who will experience having a parent imprisoned. She
started a mentoring nonprofit called
Circles of Support to assist children living with a parent
According to the
United States Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 3 percent
of Americans live either behind bars, under parole supervision or on
probation. This means that more than 7.2 million adults in
2009 lived under the shadow of a court sentence. An additional
86,927 juveniles were living in juvenile correctional facilities.
That’s a LOT of kids being impacted. And since most people who
are serving time in a prison have a sentence from 3-15 years, it can
take a huge chunk out of a childhood spent with a parent. How do we
help children with such massive holes in their lives to keep them
from following their parents into the juvenile justice or prison
Consider work like Kaeppeler’s Circles of Support or the Wintley
U.S. Dream Academy which provides a three-step program to assist
affected children. The U.S. Dream Academy focuses on three things in
1. Skill Building – assisting children with school success.
2. Character Building – to help children “apply the five
fundamental values of peace, love, truth, right action, and
non-violence in their lives.”
3. Dream Building – “Helps students to broaden their
understanding of what their options and opportunities are, while
eliminating the possibility of incarceration from their framework of
When being interviewed by the judges at the Miss America pageant
in Las Vegas, Ms. Kaeppeler said she wanted children of incarcerated
adults to feel less alone, to have mentoring and as much of a
relationship with their parents as possible.
Since I had two foster girls who had parents who were
incarcerated, I know how very difficult this last item on Ms.
Kaeppeler’s wish list is to accomplish in a child’s life. My two
girls’ parents were incarcerated for some type of drug offense,
resulting in long-term prison sentences. Their mom was housed in an
Illinois women’s prison, while their father was sent eight hours
south to a men’s prison. When I had the girls, I heard that the last
time they’d seen their father was two years before. There wasn’t
much contact between the kids and their father, so we were
encouraged to schedule a Christmas visit. The difficulty and cost of
such a trip is often prohibitive, especially with a breadwinner
I must admit, it was my first visit to any type of prison or
jail. It was pretty intimidating to have to make a reservation with
the jail, providing identification of all visitors ahead of time so
that the jail could approve our visit. On the day of the visit, we
got our five children up early (my own three biological children and
the two foster girls), to hit the road in time to make visiting
hours at the prison.
Once we arrived, my purse was searched, the children’s colored
drawings for their dad were inspected and we had to walk through a
metal detector, before being locked into the family visit room. I
was relying on my girls to remember their father, since I had no
idea what he looked like. They light up like Christmas trees when
they caught sight of an Abraham Lincoln-esque figure in prison blues
who walked across the room.
As a foster parent, I didn’t want to intrude on the first visit
in years with his children, so I never really talked with their dad.
But, he looked very happy to see them and promised his little girls
the world. I heard him promise to get out of prison and to get a
house where all of the family could be together again. Since the
family included four other siblings, my heart broke a little when I
realized how very tough that task would be for him, a former felon.
Later I heard that he, like a lot of prisoners, had his parental
rights terminated, which is only one of the tragic outcomes of
This year’s Miss America has a message to those children whose
parents end up serving a prison sentence. “There are many of you out
there — and I was one of them — but it doesn’t have to define you,”
Kaeppeler told The Associated Press.