Drizzle streaked 21-month-old Meadow's raincoat Tuesday as her grandmother carried her across the parking lot and into Lancaster County Prison, or what the toddler knew as "the castle."

Since July, Meadow's mother has been behind bars, and it was Meadow's day to see her.

After chit-chatting in the lobby, Patty Cisowski, 59, of Bart Township, handed Meadow to social worker Jennifer Strasenburgh.

Under the gaze of corrections officers, Strasenburgh carried the child through a metal detector and down a corridor. Electronic locks buzzed. Steel doors closed with a thud. Meadow was too young to understand any of it.

For the past year, the 975-inmate jail has allowed children special, hour-long visits with their incarcerated parent.

Only the parent, the child and a supportive social worker, called a family services advocate, are present, allowing for relationship-building intimacy not possible during standard prison visits with up to 14 inmates and 28 visitors in a room.

"It feels like I haven't seen you in forever! I missed you! I missed you!" said Jodi Cisowski, 30, wearing blue togs and taking hold of Meadow in an unfurnished, fluorescent-lit room ordinarily used for arraignments.

Wanting down, Meadow went to dig into two plastic bins storing toys. She quickly scattered little vehicles, jumbo Legos, a teddy bear and other treasures.

Ambassadors for Hope, a local advocacy group for children of the incarcerated, came up with the idea for the family services advocate and the special visits. Nonprofit Compass Mark got the county contract for the program.

As Compass Mark's family services advocate, Strasenburgh also does important work outside the jail. She assists the children's caregivers get services to help them meet the challenges of suddenly taking care of children.

"The main focus is on those initial needs. What do we need to get in place for the child?" Strasenburgh said. "Then we're able to look at referrals for therapy. Even as close as a child is to the caregiver, there are things they can't talk to the loved one about."

Program benefits

Research suggests similar intervention programs across the country are benefiting parents, children and society at large. Specifically, parents are less likely to reoffend and their children are more likely to thrive and avoid delinquency when positive family connections are maintained and children feel supported, according to a look at the issue by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Robert Cooper of Millersville, a retired school administrator who started Ambassadors for Hope, sees a great need for the intervention service. The group estimates about 3,000 Lancaster County children have a parent incarcerated in a local, state or federal facility. In the program's first year here, the family services advocate managed 123 cases.

The county commissioners last year agreed to test the concept. It awarded Compass Mark a $66,000 annual contract for a two-year pilot program. It was enough to hire Strasenburgh as a full-time family services advocate and a 10-hour-a-week bilingual assistant.

The funds come from a commission of about $320,000 a year that Atlanta-based Oasis Management Systems gives the county for an exclusive contract to sell inmates snacks, clothing and other commissary items.

Last July, 14 months after Meadow's birth, Jodi Cisowski decided it was time to turn herself in. She began serving an 18-month to five-year sentence, the sanction for her third drunken-driving conviction.

She knew Meadow would be in good hands with her parents, retirees Joseph and Patty Cisowski. They agreed their daughter shouldn't put off responding to an arrest warrant and an appearance before a judge any longer.

The Cisowskis, before their daughter's incarceration, were thinking about loading up a camper and touring the country. Instead, they now wake up early to change Meadow's diapers, get her breakfast and keep her occupied before and after nap time. Meadow's father sees her on Sundays.

The Cisowskis' cozy, single-family home on a rural cul-de-sac features a high chair, child-corralling gates and baby toys. Photos of their daughter are prominently displayed, and Meadow kisses them.

"It's been a lot of stress," Patty Cisowski said of being Meadow's caretaker. "I love her. I would do nothing more than help out either one of my kids. But it's hard. It's time consuming. By the time she's ready to go to bed, I'm falling asleep in the chair."

Soon after meeting Jodi Cisowski in jail, Strasenburgh visited Joe and Patty Cisowski. She saw that the couple was capably caring for Meadow. Her role was limited to helping Patty Cisowski navigate websites to get Meadow state-funded health coverage and other benefits.

Strasenburgh continues to keep in touch with Patty Cisowski by phone. And every month she sees her at the beginning and end of the mother/child visits.

In the meantime, Strasenburgh continues to check in on Meadow's mother in prison.

Strasenburgh completed the same three-weeks training — except for firearms certification — that new corrections officers receive, and is allowed to enter male and female blocks to see parents. Jodi Cisowski said she appreciates Strasenburgh's visits.

"The first time I talked to her," Jodi Cisowski said of meeting Strasenburgh in prison last summer, "I was a mess."

Sick with worry about Meadow's well being, Jodi Cisowski felt relieved after Strasenburgh got in touch with her parents and assured her Meadow was OK. She continues to use Strasenburgh as a go-between to get messages to her mother.

Early on, Patty Cisowski began bringing Meadow to the standard visitation sessions on Saturdays. The visits were sometimes difficult because Meadow tried to slide off her mother's or grandmother's lap to explore the crowded room.

Then in September, Strasenburgh set up the monthly private mother/child visits for Jodi Cisowski. Cisowski circles each date on her calendar.

During such a visit last Tuesday, Jodi Cisowski gave Meadow undivided attention, coaxing her to identify colors, letters and objects as Meadow busily went from one toy to another.

"Airplane!" Jodi Cisowski said when Meadow thrust a toy over her head. "What's the airplane say?"

Meadow pointed to the ceiling and said what sound liked, "Flies!"

A former cook at a private club, Jodi Cisowski said she's finished with partying and wants to train as a welder and raise a wonderful daughter.

"She's my world," said Jodi Cisowski, who is now a prison trustee cleared for work release and hoping to be home no later than Thanksgiving. "I want my daughter to have a good future, and for her to do that, it depends on me."

What to read next

Comments disabled.