Exploring the Traumatic Impact of Criminalizing Policies on Black Women and Girls

Black Youth Project 100 with Freedom Side in New York City August 2014. (Photo: Caleb-Michael Files)

The truth is, “black girls and women are still some of the most vulnerable members of society, thereby putting us more at risk for adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Black teen girls, in a given year, are more likely to attempt suicide and become trafficked at younger ages than their racial counterparts. Additionally, black girls are at a significantly higher risk for sexual abuse, physical abuse, and child neglect.

Stressors that occur during black and brown children girlhood, such as loss, grief, substance abuse, mental illness, exposure to violence and parental incarceration are identified as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). A tool to “assess the cumulative effect of trauma on a person’s life”, ACEs identifies household dysfunction by exploring childhood experiences through a series of questions. At the conclusion, the response totals are utilized to assess the likelihood of risk factors for negative physical, mental and behavioral health outcomes (i.e. – asthma, early experimentation with drugs, suicidal ideation).

The National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence indicates that more than 60 percent of children from birth to 17 years experience victimization and 38 percent witness violence sometime during childhood. While our recent focus has centered on the black and brown #missingDCgirls, who are disproportionately pushed out of the educational system, the community needs the conversation expanded in order to continue to coalition build and support efforts for black and brown girls affected by many of the issues that girls face, within their families, schools, and communities.

Faced with significant trauma and limited coping skills, many girls engage in behaviors that impede healthy socio-emotional development and positive overall well being. Cutting, drug experimentation, poor diet, violent outbursts, social isolation and displays of depressive emotions are just some of the behaviors that precede unaddressed stress and hopelessness, particularly in black and brown girls’ lives.

Restricted by geographic location, lack of resources, lack of knowledge of supportive services, healthcare access barriers due to age and parental rights and adolescents are left with no options. It is the foundation for a perfect storm hopeless feelings and stress.

Exploring the Impact of Criminalizing Policies on African American Women and Girls

In September 2015, scholars, community members, activist, and advocates gathered for a roundtable to discuss the impact of incarceration and mandatory minimums on survivors. With goals that focus on black women and girls, survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault highlighted criminalizing policies, mandatory minimums, and challenges in reform initiatives.

The summary report highlighting the US Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women key points and recommendations from the roundtable was issued in January 2017. The report captures these critical issues at “the intersection of multiple aspects of a person’s identity (i.e., gender, race).” When examining the “impacts of increasing incarceration and criminalization,” public health issues faced by black women and girls, such as domestic violence, sexual assault, mental illness, disability and chronic health ailments are often an afterthought. While acknowledging, the roundtable did not further discuss the impacts due to expression or exploration of sexual orientation.

“…participants noted that efforts to end violence require a deeper analysis of the intersecting factors that shape an individual’s identity. For example, it is important to take into consideration the additional barriers and risks experienced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) girls and women. Participants also highlighted the need to take into account the particular challenges and exploitation of transgender women and girls.”

The criminalization black women and girls face due to the inability to cope, runaway status, nonreporting of parental abandonment and all “the ways in which conditions and experiences related to domestic violence and sexual assault intersect with girls’ experiences in the child welfare and social services systems.” This an area of inquiry for further research and development of culturally relevant and trauma informed programming. As evidenced by the short and long term effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), the correlations to pathways involving hyper-regulation and criminalizing trauma are the opposite approach to rehabilitation.

Critical race and black feminist theory are the foundations of my clinical and sociological perspective when presenting bio-psycho-socio-emotional histories. Social workers in clinical roles such as substance abuse and mental health are trained to not only “acknowledge, be supportive and discuss the problem” but also help the client navigate institutions and systems.

As an effective therapist, it’s imperative to not pathologize behaviors but to also understand individuals, communities, and organizations within the context of the social and cultural climate.

Understanding the Impact of Paternal Incarceration on Children’s Schooling

anna haskins
Anna R. Haskins Photo Credit: Twitter @sealvarado_

Parents play an important role in their children’s lives, and parental involvement in elementary schooling especially affects children’s welfare. An impressive body of scholarship suggests that children’s health, development, and economic fortunes suffer in many ways if their parents serve time in jail or prison. Because the number of school-aged children in the United States with currently or formerly incarcerated parents sits at record levels, there is a clear need to better understand how mass incarceration furthers inequality and exclusion across generations. This includes unravelling the precise links among families, schools, and the criminal justice system.

Schools are conduit institutions that offer access to resources and avenues of economic mobility and social integration. In addition, schools do surveillance by keeping formal records and making direct connections to other public agencies – including the police. Formerly incarcerated parents may be wary of such school functions, making them reluctant to engage fully with their children’s schools. Our new study indicates that paternal incarceration is indeed a unique marker of disadvantage. Both incarcerated fathers and children’s primary caregivers have reduced involvement in children’s education at home and at school– and fears about surveillance held by previously incarcerated fathers help to explain this reduced involvement.

Why Parent Involvement in Schooling Matters

Parental involvement in schooling encompasses actions fathers, mothers, and other primary caregivers take at home or at school to promote their children’s learning and convey educational expectations. Home-based involvement includes efforts such as helping with homework, reading with children, communicating expectations, and providing access to books and educational materials. School-based involvement can include visiting the school for conferences or events, participating in parent-teacher organizations, chaperoning field trips, and communicating with teachers and administrators.

Parental involvement is known to boost children’s academic achievement and reduce the likelihood that pupils will drop out or have behavioral problems. Such involvement strengthens ties to school and enhances parents’ ability to advocate for their child, providing access to information networks integral to children’s success. By contrast, parents with lower levels of involvement – or who avoid schools altogether – reduce their children’s access to resources, information, and avenues of social integration. And such parents may convey feelings of institutional distrust.

Understanding the Impact of Paternal Incarceration on School Involvement

Assuming that fathers sent to prison or jail previously had some level of involvement with their children’s schools, scholars have theorized about reasons why they might withdraw from further involvements after release:

  • Work by the sociologist Sarah Brayne on “system avoidance” suggests that people who have been involved in the criminal justice system purposely avoid later engagement with surveilling institutions. Fathers who have served time may thus choose to refrain from activities that require interaction with the school, such as volunteering or attending parent-teacher conferences.
  • Criminal justice professor Sarah Lageson has explored how many parents “opt-out” of meaningful interactions with community institutions because of stigma or fear of having their online criminal records discovered by teachers, school officials, other parents, or their own children. Opting-out can occur preemptively because parents feel they will be barred from schooling activities such as volunteering – given that extensive background clearances are required in some states – or because previously incarcerated parents worry about stigma or embarrassment. In fact, opting-out can occur even if charges were minor or ultimately dismissed because online criminal records loom large in our digital world.

Larger Implications and Possible Remedies

Paternal incarceration, coupled with increased institutional surveillance, leads to lower levels of parental involvement in children’s schooling. This, in turn, undercuts children’s educational success and families’ ability to build trust with schools. As the number of young school-aged children with incarcerated parents grows, there may be strong, lasting, and negative consequences from this vicious cycle.

The long-term prospects of children with current and formally incarcerated parents are likely tightly linked to the children’s schooling, yet teachers often interpret parental involvement as a sign of the value parents place in their child’s educational success. However, a father’s avoidance of his child’s school may not flow from lack of caring, but from fear of stigma or adverse consequences from his previous record. Similar processes can influence the behavior of other marginalized populations, such as undocumented parents who worry about apprehension when interacting with their children’s schools.

Clearly, the country needs social policies that take into account the varied ways families, schools, and the criminal justice system interact. Untangling the secondary harmful effects of parental incarceration – including harms to children’s schooling – is necessary to prevent reproducing inequalities from one generation to the next. Research that helps educators and policymakers better understand issues that arise for children and families where a father has served time can help in the design of supportive measures.

Research so far suggests that involvement by previously incarcerated fathers in their children’s schooling can be encouraged to the degree that parents come to understand schools as safe spaces. To the degree possible, schools need to avoid seeming like one more surveilling institution to families that have already experienced the stress of an imprisoned parent. Doing everything possible to increase parental involvement by the formerly incarcerated is important because such steps are likely to strengthen family-school partnerships and improve the chances for educational success for a growing segment of all American children.

It’s Grief To Me – Death, Divorce, Incarceration, Deployment and Foster Care


Every year, educators in the public education system spend roughly 180 days and approximately around 1,000 hours with our children.  For many children, the time spent with their classroom teacher accumulates to more time then the time they spend with their own parents.  For many grieving children and teens in our communities today, their schools and their teachers remain the one constant in their lives.

Who are our grieving students in our schools today?  They are our students impacted by experiences of not only death, but situations like divorce, parental deployment, parental incarceration and foster care placement.  Many students impacted by grief and loss are not only unaware of their own grief, they find themselves struggling academically.

Grieving children have more academic barriers than their peers who are not experiencing grief.

Like the students themselves who may be unaware of their own grieving, many teachers are left in the dark about who their grieving students are.  Many may not know grief and loss experiences can connect to other life experiences such as parental divorce, incarceration of a loved one, parental deployment and foster care placement. Unfortunately, due to shame and stigma that can surround the specific grief situation of a child or teen, they may not tell their teachers out of fear or embarrassment.  Even when the teacher does know the situation, they might not quite know what to do to support their student.

In my research, I continue to find a scarcity of information on how to serve grieving youth impacted by grief and loss outside of death.  In my opinion, death is only one aspect of a much larger issue.  I realized this 13 years after my own graduation from high school when I found myself walking the halls of someone else’s high school thinking of that period of my own life that was so fraught with darkness.  This time however my role was different.  I was different.

As a mental health practitioner one of my roles was to prepare curriculum for an after school grief group within the high school mental health program where I worked.  When one student was referred to the grief group because of her father’s military deployment, I remember initially not understanding what deployment had to do with grief and loss. That quickly changed as facilitating the after school grief group provided a whole new awareness of how different grief and loss can look for a teen.

After finishing up my role as co-facilitator of the high school grief group and as my years working in the mental health program began to accumulate, I began to realize many of the youth I was surrounded by daily were grieving. Not only were they grieving, they were hungry for acknowledgement of their loss.  They wanted validation of their pain.

In my search for information,  I came to the realization that all key players need to be on the same page when it comes to the many emotions youth experience in connection to grief and loss.  Who are these pivotal players?  Not only are they the parents and caretakers of the grieving children and teens, but also educators and other key adults in the lives of youth.

I’ve come across a series of videos on Military Kids Connect, a great resource geared toward military children, teens, parents, and educators.  Although these videos are geared towards parents and caregivers of youth grieving the loss of a loved one, in my opinion, these videos also express very clearly the grief reactions of children and teens due to the effects of divorce, incarceration, and foster care placement.

In the videos Dr. Mogil, a licensed clinical psychologist and Director of Training and Intervention Development at The Nathanson Family Resilience Center, highlights grief reactions in both children and tween/teens.  Also, the Dougy Center, another great resource nationally known for their work with children and grieving families offers coping strategies for children and teens.

What initially began as one grief group experience has now turned into a lifetime mission for me.  My work is a result of my students, who allowed me into their space.  It is through their gifts I’ve learned to be curious, to ask questions instead of pass judgments.  It is through their actions and from their words I’ve learned to set the bar high, to never take “no” or “I don’t know” for an answer, and to never give up on them.

New Medicaid Guidance Improves Access to Health Care for Justice-Involved Americans Reentering their Communities


On April 28, 2016, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) strengthened access to health care for individuals transitioning from incarceration back to their communities. New Medicaid guidance released today updates decades-old policy and clarifies that individuals who are currently on probation, parole or in home confinement are not considered inmates of a public institution. It also extends coverage to Medicaid-eligible individuals living in community halfway houses where they have freedom of movement, improving access to care for as many as 96,000 individuals in Medicaid expansion states over the course of the year.

Historically, the vast majority of justice-involved individuals have been uninsured, while experiencing disproportionately high rates of chronic conditions, infectious disease and behavioral health issues. Studies show that roughly half of incarcerated individuals struggle with mental health and substance abuse conditions. Access to the health benefits the Medicaid program covers can play a key role in improving the health of these individuals, and states that expand Medicaid coverage are able to better support the health needs of this population.

“As we celebrate National Re-Entry Week, it is important to understand the critical role access to health care plays in successful returns to the community for so many Americans trying to change their lives,” said Richard Frank, HHS Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. “Today’s actions will immediately begin to give as many as 96,000 of American’s most vulnerable citizens access to needed health care through Medicaid, including mental health and substance use disorder treatment, reducing the risk they will be re-incarcerated or hurt.”

According to a report released by HHS, there are 2.2 million people currently incarcerated and 4.7 million people under probation or parole in the United States. Because over 95 percent of incarcerated individuals will eventually return to the community, their access to quality health care post-release is an important public health issue. Medicaid coverage connects individuals to the care they need once they are in the community and can help lower health care costs, hospitalizations and emergency department visits, as well as decrease mortality and recidivism for justice-involved individuals.

Through the Affordable Care Act, states have the opportunity to expand Medicaid coverage to individuals, including single childless adults, with household incomes at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty level. Federal funds cover 100 percent of health care costs for the newly eligible population in 2016, scaling down to 90 percent in 2020 and beyond. Medicaid expansion is an important step states can take to address behavioral health needs, including serious mental illness and opioid and other substance use disorders. Nearly 2 million low-income uninsured people with a substance use disorder or a mental illness lived in states that had not yet expanded Medicaid in 2014.

The Obama Administration has taken major steps to make our criminal justice system fairer, more efficient, and more effective at reducing recidivism and helping formerly incarcerated individuals contribute to their communities.  To highlight this important work, the Justice Department has designated the week of April 24-30, 2016, as National Reentry Week.

For more information on the Medicaid clarification guidance, visit:

For the report on the importance of Medicaid coverage for criminal justice-involved individuals reentering their communities, visit:

Best Practices For Grief: Parental Incarceration


2.7 million children in the United States have an incarcerated parent.

Often key players in the lives of youth have difficulty knowing how to best support children and teens impacted parental incarceration.  Due to the stigma and shame incarceration brings, the incarceration of a parent is often kept a secret.  This creates and perpetuates even more feelings of alienation and shame youth touched by incarceration may already be feeling.  From their peers, to their teachers, to the many adults impacting their lives, these youth often struggle to find someone they can trust. They often resort to isolation.

Below is the fourth video in this video series highlighting best practices for educators, teachers, and other vital players in the lives of grieving youth today.  For this interview I sat down with Zoe Willmott, Project Manager for Community Works Project WHAT!  WHAT! stands for We’re Here and Talking.  In this best practice video, Willmott draws on knowledge she’s gained from her experience working with teens impacted by parental incarceration and from her own experience of being a child with an incarcerated parent.

Willmott tells us that a child or teen impacted by parental incarceration may experience a range of feelings related to their parent, their parent’s incarceration, and the relationship the young person has with his/her parent.  So as adults working with this population of youth, honoring all feelings a young person impacted by parental incarceration may have is vital to their coping and healing.

Willmott reminds us about the importance of authenticity and being honest when working with children and teens impacted by parental incarceration.  Oftentimes these youth are told their parent has left for vacation or the military for example, instead of jail or prison.  With this in mind, it is imperative that youth impacted by parental incarceration learn to see adults as trustworthy.

One of the key takeaways from my interview with Willmott is the importance of remembering the resilience of children and teens impacted by parental incarceration.  They have so much to offer the world around them.  Most of the time these youth aren’t looking for pity or for someone to feel sorry for them.  Children and teens impacted by parental incarceration are looking for someone to listen to them.

Do you know of helpful resources for working with children and teens impacted by parental incarceration?  Do you know of an organization working with this population of youth that you think isn’t getting enough attention? Please leave a comment below or email me at amlee@sisgigroup.org.

The Underlying Racism and Inequality Behind Ferguson


It has taken a great amount of time for me to process what has happened over the past several weeks in our country with regards to the events in Ferguson, Missouri. As a result, one of the messages I heard recently has been resonating with me which is “when women succeed, America succeeds,” spoken by President Obama at a women’s forum. What does this have to do with the underlying racism behind what happened in Ferguson? While analyzing the unfolding events of Ferguson, this quote provides a parallel and ideology for all disenfranchised groups in the United States. When inequality is eradicated, we all succeed, and America succeeds.

The inequality for African-Americans are generally no longer as blatant as the Jim Crow laws of the South, rather there is an underlying inequality that can be seen in the day-to-day lives and statistics for lives of African-Americans in the U.S. While watching the riots take place, it was hard to believe what was happening, but also made perfect sense at the same time. Anger, sadness, and most of all disappointment in the way our country handled the situation. Whether a cop, rioter, politician, professional, Christian, Jew, Atheist, black, white, male, or female, there was a wide array of emotions that were released.

I was most of all disappointed at the unfolding events because as a nation we were no longer unified, but torn in two. As President Obama stated in his address to the nation police vs. citizen trust, “regardless of race, region, faith we recognize that this is an American problem, and not just a black problem, or a brown problem, or a Native American problem…when anyone is not treated fairly under the law, that’s a problem.”

Although we have faith in our governmental systems on one hand, on the other hand we have the staggering statistics of social injustices done to the African-American community who feel like they have no voice within the United States. These social injustices were evident in Ferguson as primarily white governing bodies over the past year were giving the “boot” to the only African-American member of the school board and to the only African-American county executive while appointing their white counterparts. The African-American community believed these were racially charged actions by these governing bodies which is just one example of the underlying racism and inequality that lead to the unrest.

Racism and inequality is also evident in statistics across the board in key areas that lead to wide-spread poverty.  For instance, young African-American men are killed at least four times more by the authorities than any other race, are at least 1.5 times as likely to be a homicide victim than any other race, are incarcerated at a rate of at least six times more than whites, or that one in six African-American men will go to jail at some point in their life. These statistics could show one of two things, either African-Americans are engaging in more criminal activity or there is a huge inequality and race issue in these disparities. However, Mauer and King’s research suggests inequality and racial bias accounts for the disparities.

Their research suggests that African-Americans and whites commit crimes at approximately the same rate proportionally to their respective population, but that African-Americans are significantly more likely to be arrested. Carson’s research suggests similar findings showing that whites and African-Americans who are already in jail or prison are proportionally arrested at about the same rates for most crimes to their respective populations, minus violent crimes more African-Americans arrested and sexual assault more whites arrested. Not only are African-Americans arrested at substantially higher rates even though they commit the same percentage of crime compared to whites, but they are incarcerated on average twice as long as whites for similar if not the exact same crime.

In Ferguson, we see this especially being a problem because “over 80 percent of police traffic stops in the past five years have been of black drivers, despite blacks only comprising about two-thirds of the population.” Additionally, blacks are twice as likely to have their car searched than whites even though whites are about 1.5 times more likely to be found in possession of contraband. Not only do we see inequality in the justice system for African-Americans but we also see it in the economic system. For example, 21% of African-Americans in Ferguson live in poverty compared to only 7% of whites. These statistics highlight the sad racial disproportionately of the criminal justice system and larger societal system as a whole, since African-Americans make up less than 15% of the U.S. population.

African-Americans are often told by well-intentioned social welfare programs, “you don’t have to be a statistic”. I question to whom is this actually preaching to because it seems that being an African-American in the United States you are labeled as a “statistic” from day one in the eyes of the law and system. You can easily see how individual cases of inequality for the African-American population easily line up with many of the at risk statistics in our society. What this means is that all of the individual efforts produced by African Americans can be so easily overlooked, because of the perception and label that society has given them is perceived as “bad”.

Processing an event like Ferguson is not easy for anyone on any side of the debate.  Personally, I have been very invested in looking at all of the evidence I possibly could that was released by the Ferguson Police Department, the views of many conservative and liberal opinion and news websites, and hearing the voices from multiple perspectives especially from police officers and African-American men. The conclusion for this fairly all-inclusive investigation is that we all need to step back and realize these protests and riots are not just about Mike Brown, Ferguson, police shooting, or brutality against African-Americans in the U.S.

There is a larger conversation that needs to happen in order for our society to become equal successfully, and it is not a conversation that is based on whites vs. African-Americans, African American cops vs. whites, or white cops vs. African-Americans. Rather, the conversation should be based on how we create a more equal society for all to live, especially focusing on groups that are considered “vulnerable”, whether it is through policy, laws and on an individual level.

What is now becoming the start of a major social movement needs to be about “if the marginalized succeed, America succeeds”. It needs to address the small gains that African-Americans have made since the civil rights movement. As a country and especially a justice system, it does not seem that we care for the lives of African-Americans. As a society we have marginalized minority groups since the beginning of our country’s history, which was originally based on freedom, equality, and a sense of endless potential. One of the major underlying factors from Ferguson had nothing to even do with the justice system, rather it had to do with economic oppression. Those who believe that in the U.S. we have reached a point of equality, especially racial equality, should get their information not only from newspapers or websites, but academic journals and resources.

These journals are written and published by very qualified professionals and experts in their respective fields, not just politicians, news reporters, or overreaching corporations with an opinion. Not only has our society marginalized African-American and other immigrants, who came willingly or by force because of their skin color, we even did it to the native people because of slight differences in skin pigmentation or cultural beliefs. In the history of the United States and many parts of the world, we as a society have never reached a point of even moderate equality.

Racism and inequality impact the lives of African-Americans, but it is important to realize there are many more places these themes can be seen in every city in the U.S. The only way we can solve this problem is together as a society, country, state, or city by acknowledging the existence of an underlying inequality based on skin color or other identifying aspects of a person. Then, we need to fight for equality in all aspects of life.

As a social worker, it is my required duty to stand up for vulnerable populations. Beyond that realization, it should be every social workers job and goal to strive for equality for every race, gender, religion, or other social status indicator to create an America that is based in true freedom and equality. As a Christian, it is especially important to remember that in God’s eyes we are all one race, the human race. Regardless of any differences that we may have when “the human race succeeds, humanity succeeds” and this is the kind of equality and reconciliation we should be striving for.

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