New Sesame Workshop film helps children of jailed parents

A new film from Sesame Workshop, "Incarcerated," is aimed at the nearly 3 million minors who have a parent in prison.
Sesame Workshop

(CBS News) A new program is aiming to make kids in crisis streetwise -- "Sesame Street" wise, that is. Seth Doane reports:

At 24, Francis Adjei is now the head of his household, a role he never imagined having to play.

"One day, we're all together having dinner; following day, she's in jail. And we don't know what to do," he said.

Two years ago his mother, Jackie Pokuwaah, A Ghanaian immigrant, was convicted of grand larceny, and is serving a seven-and-a-half-year sentence at a state penitentiary.

Adjei had to drop out of school, and now spends his days managing his siblings' schedules, trying to keep them in school.

His 7-year-old brother, Tyler, has to catch the school bus by 7:15. His 19-year-old sister, Francisca, who has epilepsy, helps where she can; and Francis spends an hour each way taking his 10-year-old sister, Breanna, on the subway to get her to school.

"My mother, the only person that takes care of all these things, she's not around. So now, it all falls on me now," Francis told Doane.

"When the police came and took your mom," Doane asked Francis, "did anyone ever explain what it meant to be incarcerated?"

"To the children? No," he replied. "We've never went down that direct path, just kind of been beating around the bush."

"Why was it so difficult to explain, to talk about?"

"I don't know, it was a very hard position to be in," he replied. "I didn't know what to tell them. I didn't even know how to go about it."

But soon Adjei and his brothers and sisters will find a little help on a familiar street: Sesame Street.

A scene from the film "Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration." Sesame Workshop

Melissa Dino is in charge of a Sesame Workshop production aimed at helping families like Francis' cope.

She told Doane she was struck by the lack of resources for those with an incarcerated parent.

The new, 30-minute documentary mixes the fictional with real-life. It will not air on the regular "Sesame Street" show, but will be distributed this week to therapists' offices, schools and prisons.

And there is certainly a built-in audience. According to the Pew Charitable Trust, there are currently 2.3 million Americans behind bars, the largest prison population in the world, which means one in every 28 kids in the U.S. has a parent in prison. That's up from one in 125 just 25 years ago.

"Collateral Costs: Incarceration's Effect on Economic Mobility" - Pew Charitable Trust (pdf)

Some of those 2.7 million minors -- including Francis' sister, Breanna Amankwah -- say they don't like people to know a parent is in prison.

"When it comes up in a conversation, I just feel uncomfortable, like, really uncomfortable," she told Doane. "I don't feel like talking. I kind of feel a little stiff, and I don't really feel normal."

"Why do you say that you don't feel normal?" asked Doane.

"Because it feels like I'm sick or something," she replied.