Pittsfield Literacy Partnership Helps Design Innovative Family Court Program

“At first I wasn’t too thrilled about having to be here, but I was willing to give it a chance to help my son and his father.” Heather Hinckley, talking to The Berkshire Eagle, is referring to a new pilot program in Pittsfield, a 12-week course entitled, Enhancing Families through Literature. Through this course, Heather, her toddler son, and his father met with other families on Wednesday nights at the Berkshire Athenaeum to eat dinner and either discuss modern fiction or read children’s books.

Enhancing Families through Literature is an innovative adaptation of an alternative sentencing program that began in New Bedford 25 years ago and has spread across the nation. In the original program, Changing Lives through Literature, individuals convicted of crimes are sentenced to probation rather than prison with the stipulation that they participate in a literature course. In Pittsfield, court officials have collaborated with members of the local Birth—3rd literacy partnership to adapt the program for families with young children.

After attending a workshop on Changing Lives through Literature, Berkshire Chief Probation Officer Amy Koenig and Judge Richard A. Simons were intrigued by its possibilities. They wanted, however, to find a way to meet more directly the needs of the families they saw in probate and family court, who are often involved in fractious paternity support cases. Pittsfield’s ambitious literacy initiative, the Pittsfield Promise, is established and well-known throughout the community, and thus the court officials reached out to a group of Pittsfield Promise educators, including representatives of Head Start, the library, and the public schools, and Karen Vogel, who coordinates Birth—3rd work for the Berkshire United Way. With young families in mind, this design group made two adaptations to the Changing Lives program: they included a high-quality child care component, and they added a five-week extension that brings parents and children together for early literacy activities.

During the first 7 weeks of Enhancing Families, the parents met with a college literature professor to discuss authors such as Franz Kafka, Junot Diaz, Jamaica Kincaid, and the Brothers Grimm. While the parents were in class together, the children met in another room to read, sing, and play with two experienced early childhood educators, Sue Doucette of the Pittsfield Public Schools and Donna Boschetti of Head Start. Doucette and Boschetti used the opportunity to administer the Ages and Stages Questionnaire, a diagnostic screening assessment, with the children and provided the parents with the resulting information.

The design group also extended the program for an additional five weeks, during which the early childhood teachers led the families in early literacy activities using Every Child Ready to Read, a library program that educates parents and caregivers on nurturing pre-reading skills at home. Pittsfield is the first court system to have added this five-week early literacy component.

Heather Hinckley reports that she and her son Blake’s father Justin Turner are reading to Blake more frequently now, and Blake is “reading” to them, including at Blake’s recent birthday dinner. In a show of support for the program, Chief Probate Officer Koenig and Judge Simons participated in the course as well. They have both been struck by the transformation they have seen in the parents in their attitudes towards the class, shifting from reluctance to being there to active engagement and appreciation. As Judge Simons said in The Berkshire Eagle, “I think it’s a gift we’re giving to families. It’s exceeded all my expectations.”

Chief Probate Officer Koenig and Judge Simons are committed to continuing Enhancing Families through Literature. To further the impact of the course, the design group has recently secured slots in the local Parent—Child home visiting program for some of the graduates of Enhancing Families through Literature. Participants in the Parent—Child home visiting program are in turn all guaranteed slots in a special preschool program run by a local elementary school, resulting in an aligned sequence of care and support for these children.

Karen Vogel, Berkshire United Way’s Birth—3rd coordinator, has been pleased to see the courts embracing the child-family connection. She attributes the creation of Enhancing Families through Literature to the ethos of collaboration that has developed in Pittsfield as the Pittsfield Promise’s literacy work has become more known and visible in the community. For more information on Enhancing Families through Literature, see The Berkshire Eagle’s story, “New Berkshire Probation Program Rallies around Literacy.” For more on Birth–3rd partnerships and innovation, see The Potential of Birth–3rd Partnerships: Relationships, Capacity, and Innovation.

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