Eunique is a vibrant 18-year-old African-American student at Oakland’s Fremont High whose Dad was incarcerated when she was seven years old.
“I’ll be honest with you,” she said as her broad smile stopped in its tracks. “I didn’t get any help from anybody during all of the years that my Dad was in prison. No one ever asked me how I was doing.”
During the nine years that her Dad was away, Eunique said she felt like an outcast.
“I felt like I was all alone and different than all of the other kids and families,” she said. ”It was awful.”
Studies show stories like Eunique’s are the norm.
Teens face unique challenges, according to “Children on the Outside: Voicing the Pain and Costs of Parental Incarceration,” a Justice Strategies report published in 2011. Like other children of incarcerated parents, they often face separation from siblings, having to move from place to place and increased poverty. Teens have an increased risk of delinquent behavior and an increased likelihood of school failure along with a sense of stigma and shame that impacts on their sense of who they are in the world.
For some professionals in the field, the lack of data and programs for children of prisoners contributes to the failure in reducing recidivism. Doris Mangrum worked at Santa Rita County Jail for over 20 years and is the producer of the movie “Stains, Changing Lives After Incarceration.”
“We will not reduce recidivism until we have programs that consider the needs of the youth that are left behind,” Mangrum said. “Family members are the most important part of a successful re-entry.”
Community Works is an Oakland nonprofit that aims to lessen the impact of incarceration on families and communities. They started Project WHAT! in 2006 to create programs and advocate for teens impacted by parents in prison. The youth are trained in team building, leadership skills and criminal justice advocacy. Following the training, the youth participate in a weekly leadership group, have the opportunity to become peer mentors and join a speaker’s bureau that focuses on speaking to teachers, social workers and police. The speaker’s bureau has already reached more than 5,500 people in 14 California counties and seven states.
“These teens face incredible challenges,” Project WHAT! program director Mailee Wang said. “They are going through puberty without one of their parents and a lot of them are forced to grow up early. They are often doing the jobs of the missing parent – cooking, paying the bills and looking after younger children. They are dealing with losses like not having a parent see them walk the stage at graduation.”
Eunique said that her teen years were especially difficult.
“I didn’t have a mom and if you don’t have a second parent, it’s really hard. When my Dad was incarcerated, I didn’t have anybody at school events and that hurt. I wish judges would take kids into consideration, but it seems that once you have committed a crime, they don’t care about the kids.”
Wang brings her own experience of growing up with incarcerated parents to her job.
“My mom’s incarceration started when I was young and has gone on most of my life. I remember visiting her – I didn’t care that she was in prison – I didn’t care that there were barbed wires. I was just happy to see her.”
Sports helped Wang stay focused through her teen years, but she didn’t get any support from her high school.
“When my dad was incarcerated, everyone knew – it was in the local newspaper,” she recalled. “It would have been nice just to have a conversation with a school counselor.”
Wang now works to educate others on how maintaining family relationships is essential for both prisoners and their children.
“A social worker at one of our trainings admitted that she was scared to go into prison and questioned why she should let a child on her caseload visit a prison,” she said. “A probation officer asked, ‘If their parents are felons, why should I try to help them have contact with their kids?’
Wang said she was proud of the response from one of the Project WHAT!’s youth: “The young woman said, ‘They are felons to you, but to us they are our parents. You might be scared to go, but you haven’t asked us how we feel.’”
Hattie Tate works with the Oakland Unified School District to ensure successful transitions for youth leaving the Alameda County Juvenile Detention Center.
“The teens who have incarcerated parents carry a lot of resentment and anger. They don’t understand that their parent’s mistakes don’t give them the right to continue their role as victims,” Tate said. “We try to help them move past that victim place to a place of empowerment.”
But experts say getting to a place of empowerment is hard when it feels like the deck is stacked against you. Most of Alameda County’s re-entry programs are not set-up to address the maelstrom of psychological and social problems that teenagers and their parents face upon re-entry. The 64 teens that Project What! has served since 2007 represent only a fraction of Oakland’s youth who have been affected by parental incarceration.
“Every one of the youth that we have worked with have someone in their families involved with the criminal justice system,” said Celsa Sneed, the director of the Mentoring Center – an organization that serves youth that are incarcerated, on probation, parole or facing expulsion from school. “It has become so prevalent in their neighborhoods and in their families that it is almost a forgone conclusion that they will spend time in jail or prison.”
Realignment presents an opportunity to lessen that harsh reality. John Keene, the Deputy Chief Probation Officer for Adult Services, said he hopes that over the next several years, realignment monies will be used to attend to the needs of the youth that are left that are behind and support family re-integration.
“If we can impact the lives of parents when they come home, we are going to put them and their children in a better place for their future,” Keene said.