“In Kenya they have a greeting, and that greeting is, ‘How are the children?’’’ said Pastor Patricia Sealy during a panel on day one of the inaugural National Children of Incarcerated Parents conference in Phoenix.
If the children are well, then all is well, Seely explained. For those at the conference, the concern is that the children could be well if the American criminal justice system made efforts to be family focused.
Attracting around 300 attendees from all over the U.S. and a handful of other countries, the conference brings together advocates and providers from across the social services sector. The issue was once the subject of a significant mentoring push by the federal government, and late in his last term, President Barack Obama called attention to it when he became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison.
“What is that doing to our communities?” Obama asked rhetorically, discussing the fact that one of every nine black children have a parent in prison. “What is that doing to those children?”
But this week’s event is the first attempt to bring together interested parties from around the country to discuss how to address the impact of parent incarceration on kids.
Themes from day one centered on breaking silences, dispelling myths and strengthening resilience and protective factors. But above all, presenters emphasized that those with lived experience must be at the heart of reform efforts.
“Ask yourself what it means to give someone a seat at table versus giving them access to power,” said Khalil Cumberbatch of the Fortune Society, a re-entry organization in New York City. His interest is in the intersection of immigration and incarceration, and Cumberbatch believes it’s important not to tokenize young people and others with lived experience. They might not use the same language as credentialed experts, and they might present in a way that makes people uncomfortable, he said, but that discomfort is necessary.
Also unafraid of discomfort is author Deborah Jiang Stein. “The foster care system is fed by the prison system and by addiction,” she said to the group over lunch. Stein, who was born to a heroin-addicted mother in the 1960s and spent her first year in prison with her mother, was told her whole life not to talk about her mother. Stein published a memoir in 2014, and she is founder of the unPrison Project, which helps women and girls who have been incarcerated develop life skills.
Like Stein, other speakers who have grown up with a parent in prison are adamant that misinformation fuels social conditioning, furthering the belief that people who have been locked up are simply bad. And it contributes to negative outcomes for kids.
“The kids are all right; it is a false narrative that kids whose parents are incarcerated are more likely to be incarcerated. We must change that narrative,” said Ebony Underwood, founder of We Got Us Now in New York. Underwood’s father has been incarcerated for nearly 30 years in federal prison. Underwood is also a filmmaker and works with Google on the Love Letters project.
University of Arizona graduate student Alexandria Pech, whose father was imprisoned from the time she was born until she was 21, now studies youth-driven advocacy and is passionate about the power of speaking one’s truth as an agent of change. “Stories are transformative … I felt ashamed because of the silence,” she said.
During the question-and-answer portion of one panel, a member of the audience – a grandmother whose daughter was imprisoned – said one way she deconstructs the stigma of having a child in jail is to teach her grandchildren the history of the prison system.
“Its function is to dismember black families, and it’s very effective,” she said.
Presenters and attendees repeatedly agreed that step one in changing outcomes for kids whose parents have been incarcerated is to stop the practice of locking up so many people. But step two is more immediately practical: changing how law enforcement interacts with children when arresting parents.
Addressing how officers approach children while apprehending a parent is critical to assuaging the mutual distrust between law enforcement and local communities, according to former Albany police chief Brendan Cox.
“Safeguarding children is a building block to establish trust with the community,” Cox said. “If a kid has trust in us we might be able to keep them safe in their life; we reduce crime and we are safer. Having that relationship is worth everything to a police officer.”
According to Cox, if kids don’t aspire to be cops, law enforcement as a whole is in trouble. “We want all of our kids to say ‘hey, one day I want to be a cop.’ That’s how we continue to get better,” he said.
Elizabeth Gaynes, CEO of the Osborne Association, agreed.
“Kids are then going to see every person in uniform as a potential threat,” she said. “There’s a lifelong impact on the child.”