HHS and DOJ Host Listening Session With Youth Who Have an Incarcerated Parent

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~ Morning Zen Guest Blog Post - Melissa Radcliff ~

When Ann Adalist-Estrin, Director of the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated, e-mailed us this spring and asked if we’d like to invite a young person to participate in two listening sessions hosted by the US Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice in late June in DC, we jumped at the opportunity. Of course we’d like to invite someone . . . and we had just the person in mind. 

Our post-DC breakfast with this recent high school graduate (“Gina”) and her mother who participated as a chaperone reinforced for us that we had made the right choice. Her description of the sessions, what she learned and offered, the folks she met, what she thought would be next steps, the questions asked, and her interest in continuing the conversation as she moves onto college was thoughtful and heartfelt and such a powerful reminder that she and the others in the group are indeed the experts.

Our Children’s Place of Coastal Horizons Center works to create a community where children of incarcerated parents are recognized, supported rather than shamed and stigmatized, and encouraged to share their stories. Some days it feels as though our efforts lean so much towards data (exactly how many children are we talking about?) and impacts (ACEs, school performance, mental health concerns, etc.) that we overlook and/or forget about the part where they share their stories.

Gina and her mother had a number of suggestions about what could happen here in North Carolina (and likely in other states as well). What additional information can we provide to guidance counselors who are helping students with incarcerated parents complete college applications? How can we ask the right questions to ensure that the counselors and therapists we send our children to have experience working with those with incarcerated parents? What can be done so that children and families have a better understanding of the criminal justice system, how events there will unfold, and what the potential impacts could be on their family?

They also emphasized that while a common denominator for the youth was having an incarcerated (or formerly incarcerated) parent, the stories showed many of the different ways parental incarceration impacts youth. As Gina’s mother pointed out, not all youth want to develop a relationship with their incarcerated parent. She stressed that we must listen to the youth and to hear they need. And to understand that the need may change over time.

Fortunately for all of us, these listening sessions were simply the start. The group is creating a tip sheet for providers – a wonderful and much-needed tool. But we also expect to see youth panels develop in individual states, discussions about accessing health care (a concern raised during the sessions which lead to “should there be a question about parental incarceration on health care intake forms?”), and conversations about balancing security concerns of jails and prisons with the needs of families to have consistent facility policies and procedures that recognize the importance of child-parent relationships.

Thanks to these youth panels, we’re hopeful that folks in DC sat up and took notice. Now we must work as allies with these youth as they continue their work, at both the state and federal level, creating a network of youth with incarcerated parents. Count us in!

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melissaMelissa Radcliff is the executive director of Our Children's Place of Coastal Horizons Center, a North Carolina non-profit dedicated to identifying and supporting children with parents in prison. Radcliff comes to this work with more than a decade of experience working with victims of violence and trauma in a variety of settings, ranging from their homes to hospitals and courtrooms.  


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