According to estimates in the U.S., 1 in 28 children currently has a parent behind bars. And about 1 in 14 children has been separated from a parent due to incarceration at some point. Researchers believe the actual numbers are significantly higher, but families are reluctant to report parental incarceration because of the associated social stigma.
Children of incarcerated parents are teased more often at school and often internalize the shame. Research has shown that many experience separation anxiety, traumatic stress, survivor’s guilt, developmental regressions, poor self-esteem, impaired ability to overcome future trauma, and more.
Statistics are important. But for Asya (pronounced like the continent: Asia) Branch, Miss Mississippi, her motivation for reaching out to children of incarcerated parents comes from a different source…personal experience. Her own father has been in prison since she was 10 years old.
"My father's been incarcerated half of my life, and it was tough, extremely tough,” she said. “Going through school, being judged. Society wants to judge the children of incarcerated parents, it's shameful, it's blameful...But it's out of my control. I didn't do it, I didn't ask for this, and I prayed so hard, God why is this happening?''
She now believes God has made clear the answer to that oft-repeated prayer – to help others who have asked the same questions and felt the same pain. Crowned Miss Mississippi in June 2018 and now preparing for the Miss America competition, her platform, “Empowering Children of Incarcerated Parents,” is a purpose she treasures.
Before losing their home to foreclosure, her father was the family’s main source of income. “So having to overcome all those struggles and tribulations, it was truly difficult,” she explained.
Through the years, Asya’s relationship with her father has remained intact. And that has made all the difference.
“He is still cheering me on every step of the way,” she said with pride. “He lets me know that he is praying for me. And he wishes me the best. And he has not let me give up on any of my dreams and aspirations.”
For the sake of full disclosure, I’m not a person who follows beauty pageants. I honestly am not much of a fan. The reason I know about this young lady is because of my involvement with a local ministry called Day1.
The goal of Day1 is to help incarcerated women step onto a new path while in jail, then help them to remain on that path once released. It’s essentially a discipleship program. My friend Missy spearheaded Day1 after years of jail ministry left her brokenhearted, seeing the same women cycle in and out of the system.
Our local sheriff, who had compassionately opened doors (iron doors to be exact) for us to meet with women one-on-one during their incarceration, called one day to coordinate a date when Asya could speak to the female inmates. Missy and I were both a little apprehensive. Why would this young beauty queen want to speak to “our girls?” Would she arrive in a shimmery gown with a crown atop her head? It was a little strange. (We can be a little protective.)
But plans shifted. The inmates assembled in the jail library one Thursday morning where we usually hold our private counseling sessions.
I wasn’t there that day, but I’ll put it in Missy’s words:
“When Asya Branch walked into the lobby…I noticed her beauty and warm presence immediately,” she said.
Still concerned about how this lovely college girl would (or would not) be received, Missy watched as Asya entered the room filled with female inmates sitting on stone benches in their faded orange or black-and-white striped uniforms.
Then Asya began to tell her story. She shared that her daddy, though imprisoned, was truly her hero. Tears welled and streamed down scarred, prematurely-aged faces. The emotional connection was unmistakable. She stood there in proxy, as a representation of their own precious children. She understood the pain.
When Asya lovingly challenged the women to commit to maintaining a relationship with their children while incarcerated, one inmate couldn’t contain herself.
“How can we do that?” she yelled out. “We ain’t got no paper, no envelopes, no stamps, or no money on our books!” What could have been perceived as an insolent interruption was taken as a desperate cry for help.
Because of Asya’s brave appearance that day with a group of forgotten women, Day1 worked with the sheriff and jail staff to facilitate a program called LoveLetters, enabling mothers to send weekly letters to their children. Day1 has simply provided paper, envelopes, stamps, and a little coordination, and female inmates have now written over 300 letters to their children since Asya’s visit.
And Asya’s even taken it a step further. With the permission of the female inmates, she is also writing to their children. I can only imagine the reactions of those children when they read their letters from Miss Mississippi.
Submersed in a beauty-queen world where appearances are everything, Asya could have hidden the realities of her life. But she has chosen to be an example to the families affected by incarceration – she’s chosen to make a difference in the lives of others. I’m proud that she represents the state in which I live, and I’ll be rooting for her on September 9 when she competes in the Miss America pageant.