When I close my eyes and think about lived experience, I can still hear the words of children and youth I’ve met over the years:
- “They asked me questions in front of my parents. I couldn’t say anything with them in the room.”
- “It took me a year to say something to the teacher. I stood in line at her desk almost every day. She never noticed me. One day I said, ‘look’ and showed her my arm.”
- “When the social worker came to my school, I was embarrassed. Everybody saw.”
- “The cops called me a ‘YO.’ Young offender? I was 10. I was a kid.”
- “When the Children’s Aid Society came to my house, the police came too. I thought I was going to jail.”
In Ontario, it was comments like these from advisory groups of children and youth that helped to inform inquest recommendations for enhanced training of teachers, social workers, and police officers.
“Elevate the voices of those with lived experience.” So, it says in CFSC’s criminal justice plan. Right now, it includes goals related to improving the lives of children with incarcerated parents and working toward changes in laws to ensure better family-based sentencing options as alternatives to imprisonment.
Since my arrival at CFSC in 2020, I’ve met several children, youth, and families impacted by parental incarceration. Their shared stories include feelings of isolation, shame, and stigma. Children and their families often face disapproval and attitudes of moral judgement from friends and other family members. Absence of support pervades. Placement of children away from home and family happens frequently. Lack of access to the incarcerated parent whether by phone, video, or in-person visit, is common. Visits are cancelled, especially true since the onset of the pandemic. There is often increased financial burden for the family related to a decrease in household income, associated costs for prison phone calls and food, and long distance travel expenses for prison visits.
Listening to the opinions of children and youth who have or are “living the system” is important, because they’re part of the story about that policy, sector, or service. Policies and laws must not rely only on the viewpoints of groups holding established authority. CFSC considers that the inclusion of the voices of children and youth are essential for fundamental system change. We understand that the most well-intentioned people (like ourselves) without direct personal experience, can put great effort into creating change that may not be meaningful for those who are actually dealing with the system.
Children and youth have long told us about the sense of isolation and stigma that comes from growing up with an incarcerated parent. Last summer I met with Ebony Underwood, the founder of We Got Us Now, an American non-profit organization and movement created by and for children of incarcerated parents.
Ebony and members of the Canadian Coalition for Children with Incarcerated Parents met with a group of Canadian young people who had all grown up with a parent or caregiver living in prison during their years of childhood and adolescence. This was a unique opportunity to share stories.
Ebony talked about the genesis of her involvement in working for change within the criminal justice system. When she was a teenager, her father had already been in prison a long time. Ebony began dedicated research about prison sentences, pardons, and the possibilities for release. It was a long and complicated road that eventually led to her father’s release from prison.
“The harmful impact of having a parent in prison doesn’t end when you grow up.”
That work has transitioned to national advocacy and activism. Most recently, this includes the introduction by two politicians in the US of ambitious new legislation. It would create a presumption of release for petitioners who are 50 years of age or older and have been incarcerated for more than 10 years. Ebony describes The Second Look Act as providing “a second opportunity to not only the incarcerated individual, but [providing] a second opportunity for their children and families to restore, repair, and renew those broken bonds…”1
Everyone present at the meeting with Ebony Underwood last summer agreed that the harmful impact of having a parent in prison doesn’t end when you grow up; the trauma can be insidious and last a lifetime.
Think about times in your own life when you’ve been together with others who share similar experiences and stories. Did you feel strengthened by the collective experience and perspectives of the group?
Including and bringing together those with voices of lived experience has many advantages. I have seen it in action. My work with youth advisory groups has only intensified my belief that when you bring together people with shared lived experience, they help one another, create restorative spaces, and find common ground that generates collective motivation for change.
Later this summer, CFSC will initiate a nation-wide call out to youth and young adults with the lived experience of growing up with an incarcerated parent or caregiver. We hope to form an advisory group that will work together with us in our continued pursuit to educate and raise public awareness about children of incarcerated parents and to create a rights-based framework for sentencing, enhanced pre-sentence reports, and alternatives to prison (PDF). We are excited about this new initiative and will be sure to keep you informed of our future progress!
Nancy Russell is CFSC’s Criminal Justice Program Coordinator.