By Allison Hollihan
Have you ever felt completely alone? Like you are the only one going through what you’re going through? Too often, this is what it feels like when your parent is incarcerated; only the crazy thing is, you’re not alone! In the U. S., close to 10 million children are in this situation. We are the hidden reality behind the statistic showing that one in every two adults has had an immediate family member incarcerated. The stigma, shame, and negative assumptions people make about us often lead us to stay hidden from society. Inevitably, this also hides us from each other and keeps us from connecting with supports otherwise available to us.
As three young adults who have experienced the incarceration of one of our parents, we want to kick off this new year by building and offering ways for all of us to communicate, connect, and confidently pursue our dreams. That’s why we are proud members and Advisors to See Us, Support Us (SUSU), a national Osborne Association initiative of that seeks to create and expand spaces where children can safely disclose and talk about what they are going through, address the challenges we face, and provide resources that equip the adults in our lives to support us. Each year for the past 6 years during the month of October, SUSU has celebrated our strengths and talents. While this month is a time to build community among young people struggling with the pain of having an incarcerated parent and bring tools to the adults in their lives, we need this all year round! Let’s bring in this new year by letting children know they are not alone and they are capable of achieving anything.
The three of us have experienced our fathers’ incarceration, but each of us followed a unique path. Even children in the same family can experience the separation from an incarcerated loved one very differently. Sometimes, decisions made out of love to protect us leave us further in the dark, feeling betrayed. If we’re young when the incarceration happens, it can be very confusing and sometimes feels like we lose both parents as our remaining parent can be so deeply affected. For one of us, it felt like our family was silently falling apart and no one was telling me why.
We are affected by how our families handle our parent’s incarceration, but also by how our teachers and schools handle this. A 4th grade teacher made one of us feel heard, seen, and important, but our collective experiences also include teachers who conveyed to us that we would never amount to anything or that we’d be “just like our parents.” Two related studies found teachers’ expectations of their students decreased after learning their mother was incarcerated.
To children out there who have a parent who is incarcerated, we want you to know that you are enough, you do matter, your feelings are valid, and this experience does not define you. Do not give up on your dreams! They can come true. We know from experience: one of us is Miss USA 2021, and the other two of us are college grads and were hired as the first SUSU Fellows at the Osborne Association. Our message to you: Let yourself process your thoughts and feelings about having an incarcerated parent, even more challenging during a pandemic. Find people you can talk to about these emotions. We invite you to join SUSU to connect with others like you and share your wisdom, strength, and brilliance. It’s not easy to speak out or disclose (and you don’t have to and it’s not always safe to do so), but when it’s right, it can feel good and can lead to amazing connections, healing, and opportunities. We’re here for you: we see you, and we support you.
Support Us (SUSU) raises awareness about and increases support for children of incarcerated parents. SUSU is a year-round effort with national partners, culminating in a month of action in October. Learn more at www.susu-osborne.org