LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas Voices for the Children Left Behind gathered Friday in the rotunda of the Arkansas Capitol to draw attention to the 65,000 children in the state whose fathers are in prison.
A gospel choir from the Arkansas Community Correction Unit at Osceola performed throughout the event, and several parents and children also lent their voices to share their experiences.
Dee Ann Newell, executive director of the program, said she has hosted events for incarcerated mothers for the past ten years. After reading a letter from an incarcerated father asking why there was no event for children whose fathers are in prison, Newell has since tried to raise awareness for them as well.
Newell said she hopes to remove the stigma around the children of incarcerated parents and wants to make prison a more child-friendly place for when kids who visit their parents. She said the group strives to ensure that children still connect and know their parents, even as the parents serve time, and also aims to help children who have seen their parents arrested not be being afraid of police and other authority figures.
A video played during the event that showed children describing their experiences growing up with jailed parents and demanding the right "to have a lifelong relationship with my parents."
Newell also read a letter from an incarcerated father who spoke about the problems he had connecting with his children since he went to jail.
Near the ceremony's end, one choir member — Christopher Brewer, 30, of North Little Rock — raised his hand and gave an unplanned speech. He named his "three beautiful children" and told imprisoned fathers to have hope and to try to continue to support their kids from prison.
"I'm locked up. I think all the time that my kids think, where's their father," Brewer said. "And I just want this message to go to the fathers that are locked up: there is hope."
After Brewer's speech, two other members of the choir who also are fathers spoke on their experiences in prison and the mistakes that led them there. Each man ended with a message to children of incarcerated parents to be strong and have faith.
Nathaniel Smith, 35, of Blytheville said his oldest daughter had just finished her first year of college, and his family continues to support him even as he serves his time.
"Don't count yourself out," Smith said. "'Cause it's not just about us; it's about our children, and if we can take this further on we can keep our children and their children and their children's children out of places like this."
Information for this article was contributed by the Associated Press.