By Joshua Martoma, Age 17
The NY-based Osborne Association launched "See Us, Support Us" (SUSU) in 2015 to raise awareness about children with incarcerated parents. Every October, SUSU focuses on a theme, beginning in 2015 with motivating child welfare agencies to recognize and focus on this emerging problem. According to one leading sociologist, the number of children with a parent in prison or jail has grown over five times between 1980 and 2012, growing from about 500,000 to 2.76 million US children. More than 5 million children - 7% of all US children - have had a parent in prison or jail at some point. Surveys suggest about 50-60% of incarcerated men and women in the USA are parents to young children. The typical incarcerated parent has two minor-aged children, and the average age of these children is around 10 years old. Many incarcerated parents live with their children the month before their incarceration, and most report that they were the primary financial supporter of their families.
For me, these statistics hit a little too close to home. I was only 9 when my father was incarcerated. My siblings were 7 and 5. It would have been a blessing if SUSU had been up and running when that awful moment happened. We needed to be seen and supported. Thankfully, SUSU is running strong today, but their work is only beginning.
Today, we are fortunate to have not one, not two, but three special guests to discuss the current SUSU awareness efforts. First, we have Allison Hollihan from the Osborne Association. She co-authored the original SUSU report in 2015 and is and is the Director of New York Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents at the Osborne Association's Center for Justice Across Generations. We also have Folashade Olatunde, a See Us, Support Us Youth Fellow at Osborne. Finally, Oluwademilade Ogunlade, a Youth Fellow at SUSU, is also joining us. Olu attends Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law and was formerly SUNY Old Westbury's Student Government President. We know they'll all have powerful voices to share! Let's jump straight to it.
Joshua: This month is about SUSU, which is about young people. Olu, why don't you start us off. Tell us your stories about the criminal justice system and your work as a SUSU Youth Fellow?
Olu: First off, Joshua, thank you for including me in this interview. I started off in the YAC, that's Osborne Youth Action Council, back in 2016, collaborating on advocacy efforts with fellow YAC members. We advocated for a bill that would require the New York State prison system to place incarcerated parents in the prison closest to their children. The bill was signed into law in 2020. Now, I'm a SUSU Youth Fellow, and this has been an opportunity to approach this conversation from an entirely different angle.
Joshua: Wonderful. The signing of the New York bill was a big deal. We interviewed Tanya Krupat two years ago about that bill. It's incredible how much has happened in that time. Let's move a little closer to now and the work at SUSU this year. Allison, let me ask you this question. What is the most critical thing SUSU has done in the last year to help children or families facing incarceration? You can go beyond SUSU to Osborne in general if you'd like.
Allison: Great question, Joshua. During See Us, Support Us month 2021, we convened a two-part Youth Listening Session for Educators where youth with lived experience and educators, many who also experienced parental incarceration, shared their advice and strategies for how to support young people's educational success and well-being. Your sister Ava was on the panel, and her perspective and tips for educators were outstanding. To celebrate SUSU month this year, we released a summary of the recommendations shared during the Youth Listening Session, which can be found on the See Us, Support Us website.
Joshua: I like the shout-out to my sister, Ava! She's definitely a big supporter of the work you are doing. Allison, we get a lot of questions about SUSU from our followers, especially this month. What do you think people don't understand about SUSU or other projects that you can share with our members?
Allison: Another great question, Joshua. Most children of incarcerated parents thrive and succeed when they are SEEN and SUPPORTED. One of the bigger challenges we've faced is how to convey this while correcting the inaccurate narrative that children of incarcerated parents are more likely to become incarcerated themselves without actually stating this false narrative (See, I just did it!). It is tempting to "myth bust," but when a myth is stated, it is reinforced in the listener's mind. While there is a slightly elevated risk—much lower than reported in very early research—there are many variables that lead to this outcome for a small percentage of children of incarcerated parents, such as generational poverty and trauma, social determinants of health, and the systemic racism that is baked into our criminal legal system and all our systems. Yet, many programs for children of incarcerated parents often state that participation will prevent children from "following their parent's footsteps" to prison. Ultimately, this inaccurate narrative further stigmatizes children who are already highly stigmatized. While this narrative may be appealing to funders and policymakers, I ask everyone to take pause and consider how children feel when they hear this inaccurate narrative about their futures.
Joshua: Yes, you are so right. It's often left unsaid but definitely felt. We should all pause to think about the great point Allison makes here. While the story that children with incarcerated parents are more likely to become incarcerated makes us feel good about supporting a worthwhile cause, it's not true. Actually, it serves to stigmatize the very children you want to help. Recent studies report that children experienced stigma transference, namely from others associating a parent's record as a direct representation of the child's moral worth. These feelings extended into social and professional settings later in life. Allison, if I didn't have so much more to ask about, I'd stop to dig in further, but let's put a pin in that deeper issue for now and push forward. Olu, back to you. What do you want the world to know about children or families dealing with incarceration?
Olu: I want folks to know that children are not the mistakes of their parents. Having a parent in prison is challenging by nature, so it's imperative that people do not further complicate it by treating us as outcasts or beings of unfortunate situations.
Joshua: Yes, there it is again. Don't stigmatize the very children you are trying to help by treating them as problems. Olu, you seem to understand the space well. What tips would you give to children coping with adversity?
Olu: I'd advise children coping with adversity to take everything day by day. Sometimes everything seems huge, but when you get through it, you look back and realize that overwhelming yourself with this reality might've complicated things.
Joshua: Fola, it seems like you also have something to add?
Fola: Yes, I definitely do. As someone who has experienced adversity throughout my childhood and my young adulthood. a tip that I would give to children coping with adversity is to make everyday a mission to take care of yourself. Life is difficult, but you must make time for yourself each day. Whether that's going for a daily walk, making time at least once a week to have a cleansing bubble bath. Read a book that helps you center your mind, don't stay cooped up in your house, get some sunlight and just enjoy the presence. When your thoughts are all over the place, find time to journal. If you don't know what to write, find journal prompts on Pinterest. If that doesn't work, you can write the pros and cons of your day—start small. If technology is your way to express yourself and help you cope, try doing a fun project for yourself, such as documenting and reflecting on your present journey of life. Find the good even in the midst of adversity, you don't have to have it all figured out, you just have the faith and the tools of self-care to keep going!
Joshua: Great advice from both of you. Personally, I'm not sure I'll ever have it all figured out! But that won't stop me from trying. This question is open to anyone. What or who has most influenced your thoughts on incarceration and why?
Allison: I'll take a stab at that one. It's everyone I know who has been affected by the incarceration of a parent, or a loved one, and incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. Bearing witness to their successes, challenges, and transformations while navigating a punitive and racist criminal legal system inspires me every day to continue fighting for a justice system that promotes healing, safety, and responsibility that is less reliant on incarceration. We need responses to lawbreaking that hold people accountable while keeping families together when it is safe to do so.
Joshua: Excellent observations. You've seen so much, Allison, and I'm sure being a witness in the "Lebron" meaning of the word has profoundly affected you. Let me give my last question to both Olu and Fola. Both of you are remarkable in terms of your passion and commitment to helping children with incarcerated parents. If you were giving a piece of advice about how to make a difference, what would you say?
Fola: Thank you, Joshua. I would say this. Find a cause that reflects your values and your life struggle. Once you find what that is, use your existence to be a part of the change. Don't just say what you're going to do. Instead be the change. At the end of the day, to make a difference, you must start with you. Just watch and see how powerful it can be.
Olu: I agree. Stay up to date on everything. Sign petitions, watch and/or read the news, buy books, stay informed as the conversation on this matter evolves. Stay willing to be selfless in the fight.
Joshua: Wow, pearls of wisdom that should be treasured. Thank you, Allison, Olu, and Fola, for joining me today. I think we learned three times as much. Please remember to SEE and SUPPORT children with incarcerated parents daily, especially this month. Please visit here for more information about SUSU's activities, including their upcoming art competition.