GAINESVILLE — According to the National Institute of Corrections, 7% of all children in the U.S. have had a parent in jail or prison at some time in their lives.
For many years, social scientists have sought to understand the impact of parental incarceration by talking to adults about their perspectives of children’s experiences and their unique challenges. Scientists rarely interviewed youth about their own experiences.
But today, this kind of research is evolving, as lived experience and youth perspectives are increasingly valued, said Michelle Abraczinskas, a clinical-community psychologist at the University of Florida.
“What if the people affected — the children of incarcerated parents — were able to do this research themselves, peer-to-peer? What new insights and solutions would we gain?” asked Abraczinskas, an assistant professor in the UF/IFAS department of family, youth and community sciences.
To begin answering these questions, Abraczinskas has partnered with two local community organizations: Project YouthBuild and the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding.
Based on a framework called youth participatory action research or YPAR, their initiative will give a group of local youth the tools to illuminate the challenges of parental incarceration and the supports needed to navigate them. Youth will advocate to address these challenges directly though presentations to stakeholders about changes to policies and systems.
“We are excited to be partnering with UF and the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding on this project — the first, we hope, of many. This project is intended to give young people a voice so they can advocate for themselves and come up with new ideas,” said Jonathan Leslie, executive director of Project YouthBuild.
These ideas may one day help reduce some of the socioeconomic disparities experienced by families of incarcerated people, said Jeffrey Weisberg, executive director of the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding.
“We believe in training young people to be empowered and equipped to manage the challenges that affect them and their communities, and YPAR fits right into that mission,” Weisberg said.
Parental incarceration is considered an adverse childhood experience (ACE), and research shows that this trauma can have a lasting negative impact on children’s behavior, mental health and educational outcomes, Abraczinskas said.
To reduce these negative outcomes, it is critical to better understand and support children of incarcerated parents, which is what the YPAR program seeks to do, the program’s leaders say.
Back in May, Abraczinskas, with support from Project YouthBuild staff member Ashten Mays, and Britni Adams, the co-principal investigator and faculty member at the University of Nevada-Reno, began teaching an eight-month research and leadership curriculum to six Project Youth Build alumni.
During this time, participants shared about their experiences with parental incarceration, learned how to come up with a research question, developed a research plan, and built socioemotional skills. Using what they’ve learned, the research team will conduct focus groups with dozens of youth who have also experienced parental incarceration.
“As they learn from their peers during focus groups, novel ideas and change strategies may emerge that might never come out of an interview with an adult researcher, or someone without that lived experience,” Abraczinskas said.
At the end of the year-long program, the youth research leaders will give a presentation to stakeholders outlining policy or service changes that would improve the lives of children of incarcerated parents. Examples of potential Gainesville-area stakeholders include Community Spring, the Alachua County Sherriff’s Office and City of Gainesville leadership. The youth researchers will also present at a research conference.
The YPAR project is funded through a contract with the Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, via the American Institutes for Research.