‘I have rights too:’ The Importance of youth voice among children of incarcerated parents

Children and adolescents of incarcerated parents face many barriers. The loss of a parent to the criminal justice system, even temporarily, can often be a hard adjustment. While it may be critical to discuss the policies, practices and supports these children need, it is equally important to engage in this discussion with youth at the table. Incorporating a youth perspective means more than adding the occasional personal testimonial, it means taking a step back to hear from the individuals these practices impact the most.  

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Bryce Peterson from the Urban Institute about a report he co-authored with colleagues on this topic. The report titled Children of Incarcerated Parents Framework Document: Promising Practices, Challenges, and Recommendations for the Field” recognizes youth voice as a powerful resource.

So, how might young people add to the conversation moving forward? The Urban Institute’s report provided recommendations along with thoughtful examples to address this question.

Buy-in: the report describes the issue of how preconceived ideas about what is best for children, can hinder policy development.  Raising awareness around youth ideas and perspectives may encourage stakeholders to collaborate and subsequently work towards progress.

“Jurisdictions implementing new policies might disseminate youths’ perspectives and raise awareness about the importance of the issue to help the staff, family, and justice-involved individuals to overcome resistance to change. Sharing what we have learned from youth about their needs is important.” (Peterson et al., 2015, p. 15)

Adding to policies and programs:  Policies and programs designed for children of incarcerated parents, but designed by adults, can potentially miss critical developmental considerations. Youth voice in collaboration with adults has shown to enhance the equity and effectiveness of public programs and policies (Delgado & Staples, 2008).

“Through focus groups with youth, the Pittsburgh Child Guidance Foundation concluded that waiting areas and areas used for visiting detainees at the Allegheny County Jail can seem intimidating or hostile to young children. With children’s direct experiences in hand, the foundation helped create more kid-friendly waiting areas in the jail.” (Peterson et al., 2015, p. 11)

3) Empowerment: has consistently shown that young people report feeling empowered and valued when they have room to voice their opinions with the support of adults (Camino, 2000).

“Project WHAT! youth helped develop the officer training video for San Francisco’s parental arrest policy and made a presentation at a press conference when the new policy was being released. Thus, advocacy programs enable children to talk about their experiences and to have a voice when it comes to decisions that affect their lives.” (Peterson et al., 2015, p. 7)


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