Normal was Never Enough: Children of Incarcerated Parents

Guest blog by Joel Van Kuiken and Cole Williams, Delta Project Co-Founders

Half of the nearly 2 million people incarcerated in the United States are parents of children who are under the age of 18. This means on any given day 2.7 million children have a parent serving time in prison or jail, and more than 5.2 million have had an incarcerated parent at some point during their lives.

There are many children in West Michigan searching for their locked-up fathers and mothers. For young men, the consequences of a fatherless community can ultimately lead to a continuing cycle of incarcerated fathers, a troubling phenomenon that disproportionately impacts Brown and Black citizens. 

Incarcerated teenage dads are routinely separated from their children, and they typically aren’t receiving the support they need to help them even understand what healthy manhood, let alone fatherhood, requires. In fact, kids with cross-system involvement are rarely even asked if they are parents. Many of their needs are going unmet. 

When young men in our community are lacking access to the parental guidance and nurturing they need to model healthy behavior, it’s no wonder they end up looking for affirmation elsewhere. And it should be no surprise that these children — many of whom are dealing with mental health issues and generational trauma — often find their way into the juvenile justice system.

The Delta Project is working locally to increase support for young, incarcerated fathers through their Young Father’s Initiative, Y-FI for short. Using an evidence-based curriculum developed by Cole Williams called Son to a Father, students learn parenting skills and the importance of being present in their children’s lives. The program is available for students in the juvenile detention center, the county jail, and on probation. It’s an attempt to get further upstream of an ongoing gap that is exacerbating negative outcomes in our community.

Eighteen-year-old Dowan Mansfield Jr. is one young man who is benefiting from the Y-FI program. Last spring he discovered that his girlfriend was pregnant. To provide for her and their soon-to-be-born baby he went to the streets to try to make some money. He was subsequently arrested and placed in juvenile detention. His son was born two months later without him. 

While serving for seven months, Dowan changed his mindset. He was released from detention in April and finally met his five-month-old baby. Despite the probation restrictions placed on him, he’s now going to be able to bond with his child and experience most of those tender years between birth and age five which play such a crucial role in a child’s development. 

Many incarcerated fathers in our community aren’t as fortunate as Dowan. They are missing their children’s formative, developmental years when a father’s presence is most needed. Sharing tangible moments with their developing children should be the norm. Dads shouldn’t be seen as showing up only when kids are in trouble or when they need money. 

Across this nation, there are a host of children and families involved in the juvenile justice system who do not have a voice, and feel isolated and alone. We are spending millions of dollars confining people physically — and mentally — in a system that is broken. People who have incredible potential, but people who we also expect to have the wherewithal to succeed even when the systems of support around them have failed. Are we open to hearing their voices and understanding the barriers they face? What if they are yearning to change their narrative, but the community is unable or unwilling to listen?

Generational trauma and continuing mental health issues so many Brown and Black people face are fueling an epidemic of despair and reactive behavior that is challenging the foundations of our society.

Kids who don’t have the verbiage or means to articulate what they are yearning for tend to cause disruption just to be heard. If they aren’t receiving the support they need to see how they can succeed, then we should expect the disruptions to continue.

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