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After what seemed like the longest week of her life, Friday finally arrived. It was the day that 10-year-old Eva* was going to the jail to say goodbye to her dad. She was sad and upset — after six years of visiting her dad weekly in jail, everything was changing. Her father was going to prison.

Every memory Eva made with her dad has been within the child-friendly, family visitation room in San Francisco’s jail through a special program supported by the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department (SFSD). During these special child-family visits, Eva can hug and play with her dad once a week, a basic human need that many children of incarcerated parents are not afforded.

San Francisco county jail

When their mothers or fathers are transferred from jail to prison, children of incarcerated parents often face daunting goodbyes. To ensure Eva and children in her position are best supported, CJCJ and the SFSD have partnered for over 30 years to promote the best possible experience in a very difficult situation. Captain Paul Miyamoto, Commander of San Francisco County Jail #4, has shown his unwavering support of family visits, allowing children hour-long, one-on-one, weekly visits with their incarcerated parent in a safe, comfortable space in his jail.

Captain Miyamoto and Sheriff Vicki Hennessy’s administration have further supported goodbye visits” individually tailored to the needs of the child. Captain Miyamoto approved an extended visit for Eva, giving her a unique, two-hour window to ensure Eva and her father had adequate time to say goodbye and help Eva understand that she was not being abandoned. CJCJ’s Program Manager, Maire Larkin, facilitated the visit, as she has many of their visits over the years. Maire knew Eva would need help sorting out her emotions, so she purchased a diary for her dad to gift to her.

The visit started like any other: coloring pictures. Eva’s dad presented the diary, explaining she could write down her feelings, thoughts, and events in her life. In addition to phone calls, Eva could use her journal to record what she wants to share with her dad. Immediately embracing her new journal, Eva and her dad hummed their favorite songs and she wrote down the song names in her diary. Eva’s dad also wrote a special passage for her to read when she got home.

Children coloring in CJCJ’s Children’s Waiting Rooms (CWRs)

Maire also snapped a photo of Eva and her father so Eva could have a tangible memory of the day. Over the years, the two took an annual photo during Christmas visits, but Eva’s dad recently sent all of them home for safekeeping. They reminisced about the photos and their focus moved to a more emotional discussion. Eva’s dad explained he wouldn’t be able to see her for a while and that the visits would be different, but Eva’s grandmother would bring her to see him as soon as she had permission from the prison. As their visit drew to an end, Eva’s dad told her after two years in prison he would be home and they can be together again.

Emotions rose and tears welled up in Eva’s eyes. She wrote another word in her diary and shared it with her dad. He was surprised to read happy”. I’m excited you’ll come back home,” Eva explained, and stay overnight at Grams with me.” Eva and her dad said their usual prayer, hugged tightly, and Eva left with Maire.

Children must be supported when experiencing the incarceration of a parent. Thanks to SFSD, family visits help children maintain relationships with their parents and even strengthen familial bonds while parents are in jail. Goodbye visits are particularly important because it allows the parent to directly explain to their child that the change is not their fault, that they will return (depending on the circumstance), and provides them with tools, like Eva and her dad’s photos and journals, to communicate between multiple barriers. Today, despite the unfortunate circumstance this family faces, we celebrate the happy and healthy goodbye Eva experienced.

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* Names and details in this story have been changed to protect the identity of the family.