Rosalyn Davis started to cry as she bounced her granddaughter on her lap and watched the 21-month-old wave at her mother through the camera.
"Hey, pumpkin, you know it's your mama," Thursday Engram crooned at her daughter, Danielle. "I love you."
"Oh honey, everybody knows she belongs to you," Davis said.
Danielle laughed and waved back at her mom, who's more than a 100 miles away at Lowell Correctional Institution.
Engram has been an inmate for most of Danielle's life. But at least once a month, she blows kisses through the video screen and draws hearts with her fingers to show her love.
Their visit is part of a program at Abe Brown Ministries allowing incarcerated mothers at Lowell Reception Center to have video visitations with their children.
Abe Brown Ministries, which serves incarcerated offenders and ex-offenders, launched the program in June 2011. Children and their guardians can virtually visit once a week with their moms for about 20 minutes. All visits are supervised by members of Abe Brown Ministries, and the conversations are focused on topics relating to the children.
In the past year, 23 families have participated in the video visitation program.
Though the staff works hard to keep things flowing smoothly, including providing rides to caregivers and children who don't have transportation, sometimes there are unavoidable holdups at Lowell Correctional Institution. Adaptation and flexibility remain a key part of the program, said Abe Brown Ministries president Robert Blount.
"Anything that happens on the compound will bring a halt to something like this," Blount said. "You have to be flexible any time you're working through the Department of Corrections."
Davis and her granddaughter Danielle waited more than an hour Monday to meet with Engram. Davis doesn't mind, though. Any small delays are worth it for those precious minutes they share between a screen. The family is hoping for a reduced sentence for Engram, who was sentenced to 30 years for aggravated battery.
Research conducted by Abe Brown Ministries and other members of the Collaborative for Children in Hillsborough of Incarcerated Parents found that about 6,000 children in Hillsborough County have at least one incarcerated parent. But Blount suspects that 3,000 to 5,000 children could be added to that figure. The problem is that there is no county service in place to identify these children and make sure they are receiving adequate care, he said.
In addition to allowing kids to talk with their moms, the program tries to strengthen parenting skills. For example, Abe Brown Ministries funds quarterly bus trips to Lowell and provides food for lunch. But it's up to the mothers to prepare it.
"This is their opportunity to be moms," Blount said. "They get to nurture."
Blount recalled a quarterly visit when a child who hadn't seen her mom since she was born jumped into her lap as soon as they were reunited.
"She knew instantly this was her mom," Blount said. "That visit probably would have gone differently if they hadn't gotten to know and see each other through the video visitations …There's some real healing that takes place on these visitations."
At times, the visits can be awkward, even strained. Younger children sometimes are shy in front of the screen. One boy told his mom he prefers talking to her on the phone. Others get distracted and run around the room.
But when the conversation is flowing, the screen almost disappears. For a few moments, it's possible to imagine that Mom is away on a trip instead of in prison as the family laughs about the tooth fairy and debates whether baseball or football players make more money.
A main goal of the program is to make Mom's transition back into the community and home smoother, Blount said. Children can carry a lot of anxiety and anger when they are unable to see their parents during the years of the incarceration. The weekly video sessions ease that.
"I advise everybody if you have a relative in prison, this would be a good place to come," said Davis. "They have been very supportive. I make sure to bring the children so they can stay acquainted and they can keep their bond."
The equipment for the video visitations costs about $8,000 for each set. Though FaceTime or Skype would be a more cost-effective solution, Blount said correctional facilities require a more secure system — one the program has to pay for if it wants to expand into other facilities.
The Children's Board of Hillsborough County began funding the program in June. Is is one that executive director Kelley Parris has taken an especially strong interest in. Parris spent 12 years in Alabama volunteering with women in the prison system and witnessed the effect longtime separation had on the mothers and their children.
"Probably the most profound problem for those women was not paying the price for the crime they had committed but their not having regular contact with their children or grandchildren," Parris said. "Now with technology being what it is today, we can affect the lives of those children and those women. The children do not have to pay for the sins of their parents."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Caitlin Johnston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.