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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

COVID-19 Results In Kids Unable To See Incarcerated Parents

Will Hovatter Jr.
North Carolina Health News
Teresa Hovatter holds her 6-year-old grandson, Will Hovatter Jr. He can’t see his incarcerated father because of Covid-19 restrictions.

An estimated 21,000 children have a parent in prison in North Carolina. For most of this year, they haven’t been able to see their parents in-person because of the pandemic. Some visits have resumed, but younger kids still can’t see their mom or dad.

Like 6-year-old Will Hovatter Jr.

Will has not seen his father, Will Hovatter, since January. He thinks he’s traveling for work -- it’s what his family has told him since the pandemic began. They don’t want him to worry.

His father is a prisoner at New Hanover Correctional Center, serving a 3.5-year sentence for firing into an occupied vehicle.

Will and his dad stay in touch over 15-minute phone calls. They talk like many fathers and sons around the holidays – about dinosaurs, video games, and of course, Christmas presents. During one call, Will tells his dad he wants a PlayStation 5. His dad says he will buy one when he gets home.

"You gonna come with me?" he asks his son.

In October, North Carolina prisons with low COVID-19 numbers reopened to visitors, including New Hanover. But there’s one exception: Children under 13 are still barred from visiting, something that frustrates his grandmother Teresa Hovatter.

"We had one 30-minute visit, right when they opened it back up. His sister and I went, they would not allow little Will to go, it was hard," she says.

A spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety, which oversees state prisons, declined to speak for this story. In an email, he said prisons aren’t allowing young kids because they might not be able to follow safety protocols, like wearing a mask and staying six feet apart from their parents.

Forty-two states don’t allow family visits, but a little over half of the ones that do have some restriction on young kids, according to various prison system officials or policies on their web sites. Connecticut and New York are exceptions. They allow children of all ages. Hovatter said the family tries to keep Will’s connection to his father in other ways.

"We make a big deal with little Will about coloring pictures, sending them to his daddy, and helping him write letters. But I can tell he misses his daddy a lot," Teresa says.

Hovatter Sr. is scheduled to get out of prison in January 2022. The family isn’t worried about Will Jr. knowing his dad is incarcerated -- in fact, Will visited him in prison early this year, before the pandemic hit. They just don't want to explain that his dad is at high risk of getting a deadly virus where he lives. Teresa says Will still has an inkling of what’s going on.

"I would give anything if he could just go visit him," Teresa says. "He asks, ‘When am I gonna go see my daddy?’ ‘Soon as the virus is over,’ you know, that’s our explanation. There have been a couple of times that he’s questioned if he’s still alive. And that — that’s just heartbreaking."

These in-person visits are critical for maintaining relationships between kids and parents behind bars, says Melissa Radcliff, who’s with Our Children's Place of Coastal Horizons Center. It serves children of incarcerated parents.

"It’s important for children to know that their parent is still here, and alive and that their parent still loves them and still wants that relationship because kids have a truth about what’s going on," Radcliff says. "And so having the chance to see their parent and - even if it’s behind glass, to have that connection."

Radcliff says a 15-minute phone call just can’t replace a two-hour visit. She wants visitation policies to prioritize the needs of young children, even as the pandemic continues.

"You know, how do we support and make visits happen, and make them as helpful and supportive as possible under all circumstances, pandemic and otherwise?"

As Will and his father’s 15 minutes come to an end, Teresa Hovatter suggests they say goodbye because the call will abruptly disconnect.

They say they love each other - and Will Hovatter Sr. promises to call his son again.

Hannah Critchfield is NC Health News' Report for America corps member. Report for America is a national service program that places talented emerging journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered topics and communities.