With so much madness in the world, vulnerable populations are being left further behind. Children with incarcerated parents are of those forgotten groups. My dissertation completed in 2002 focused on fathers as part of the Fragile Families study. The prison population had exploded from roughly 300,000 in 1980 to nearly two million in 2000. With many parents behind bars, naturally, there were concerns about the well-being of the children they had left behind. Concerns grew exponentially as women’s incarceration doubled that of men—ballooning 700 percent between 1980 and 2016, according to the Sentencing Project.
Dr. Tamarie Willis, an Executive Branch Policy Fellow sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD), brought the idea for a briefing on children with incarcerated parents to CRISP’s Legislative Director Dr. Angelique Day, her former professor at Wayne State University. It had been the subject of her dissertation titled In the Best Interest of the Family: The Outcomes of Children in Foster Care with an Incarcerated Parent and the Adverse Implications of the Adoptions and Safe Families Act. Dr. Day shared a similar interest in her work with Partners for Our Children, an affiliate with the University of Washington School of Social Work in Seattle.
Joining her on the panel are Dr. Carrie Pettus, President and CEO of the newly created Wellbeing & Equity Innovations, a translational research nonprofit assisting legal and justice systems, along with community partners, to develop and implement policy mitigating the impact of incarceration; Ebony Underwood, founder and CEO of the national nonprofit WE GOT US NOW, a nonpartisan organization advocating for the well-being of children and young people impacted by parental incarceration; and Adrian Burnim, a licensed clinical social worker currently a Restorative Justice Social Worker with the District of Columbia Office of The Attorney General. I will be privileged to engage these three dynamic individuals in a discussion as moderator.
I have known Dr. Pettus since her days on the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis faculty, where she co-led the Promote Smart Decarceration network of the Grand Challenges for Social Work. I was a member of the network for several years. Dr. Pettus is now the Chair of the Grand Challenges Leadership Board. She moved to Florida State University School of Social Work in 2028 where she created the Institute for Justice Research and Development to advance research, policy, and practice to improve the circumstances of individuals, communities impacted by the criminal justice system. Her work got her invited to White House sessions during the crafting of the First Step Act, signed into law by President Trump in 2018 to reform the federal prison system and reduce recidivism. I teased her about her meetings with Jared Kushner.
Ebony Underwood, whose father was sentenced to life in prison without parole, channeled the pain and trauma of separation into a crusade to help others through similar excruciating circumstances. She launched her non-profit organization, WE GOT US NOW, in 2018 to bring attention to what she describes as the “invisible population of children with incarcerated parents”. She has developed a network in 25 cities and states, launched a highly successful podcast, built relationships with Google and Sesame Work, and helped to enact legislation at the federal, state, and local levels.
Also on the panel is Andrian Burnim, my former student at Howard University. When Adrian arrived, I was given the task of being his mentor. I was told he had some difficulties. We never really talked about his past difficulties and concentrated on his future aspirations. When he submitted his first paper in my policy class, I realized he was a high-level critical thinker. I mentored his research when he was selected to be the Cosby Scholar. He has avidly pursued a mission to ensure young people overcome their trauma, eliminate or reduce their risky behaviors, and escape the pitfalls of the criminal justice system.
Please register for the briefing if you would like to attend. Seating is limited, so we will accept registrations on a first-come, first-served basis. According to the WEGOTUSNOW website, more than 10 million children in the United States have experienced parental incarceration in their lifetime. Millions of mothers and fathers are in the vicious cycle of going in and out of America’s jails in addition to those locked up in prisons. Let’s see what we can do for the children.