Doing Family Justice in Louisville, KY

A Special Project Art Leader demonstrates how to make a Wish Doll during a community meeting.

By Judi Jennings, Director of The Special Project

Louisville Family Justice Advocates is a “new” coalition, yet it is more than two years in the making. And 10 years before that, The Special Project, a lead partner in the coalition, originated weekly artmaking sessions with families in the Visitors Lobby of the Metro Louisville Jail beginning in 2008.

Now, across the country and in our own community, more people are waking up to the devastating impact of mass incarceration.  According to the Sentencing Project, incarceration in the US increased 500% over the last 40 years. There are now 2.2 million people in our prisons and jails.  An estimated 5,749,000 children have had a parent in jail during their childhood.

Kentucky is the second highest in the nation—15%–of children who have had an incarcerated parent, nearly twice the national rate of 8%. Kentucky also has the second highest rate of female incarceration in the US. Almost 71% of females in state custody are mothers with minor children. Parental incarceration is now known to be an Adverse Childhood Experience, which can be traumatic and have lasting negative effects, such as toxic stress, on children’s health and wellbeing.

Doing social justice work on the scale and pervasiveness of mass incarceration and its impact on children can be overwhelming and may seem impossible to address.  Especially now, when communities at the local, state and national levels are polarized to the point of contesting whose realities are real.  AND when print, visual and social media outlets portray different versions of what is news and what is true.    

In the midst of this chaos and division, Louisville Family Justice Advocates is a newly emerging coalition dedicated to more fair and equitable policies and practices for families with incarcerated loved ones in Jefferson County.  Purposefully grassroots, LFJA starts with criminal justice reform from the community up, where we work face to face to reduce mass incarceration.  As a community-based coalition, we are innovating, evolving and out-right borrowing social justice principles and democratic practices to help us reclaim civic equity, empathy and reality. 

Here are four principles and practices for doing social justice we are using in these trying times:

“Nothing about us without us”

Wikipedia traces this phrase to Poland in the 1500s. Who ever used it first, it is critical for criminal justice reform today. JustLeadership USA, which includes national Fellows from Louisville, rightly stresses that people with direct experience of incarceration must lead criminal justice reform because they understand the current system first hand.

Focus on creating knowledge & solutions

With the breakdown and profiteering of news sources today, social justice organizations can help fill the gap by creating new knowledge and solutions that work at the grassroots level.

Over the last two years, the Special Project expanded its weekly artmaking activities to working for more fair and equitable policies and practices for children and families with incarcerated loved ones.  In 2018, the Special Project partnered with Metro Louisville Center for Health Equity to produce a Health Impact Assessment showing how parental incarceration harms children’s health, especially children of color, in our community. Combining research and solutions, the report recommends corrective local actions to address this urgent public health concern.

Develop & maintain a strong equity analysis

According to Nation Public Radio, the “word of the year” for 2018 was “social justice.”  Based on my personal experience, there are about as many definitions of social justice as there are people talking about it, pro and con. Social justice is a great concept, yet meaningful change requires a strong equity analysis linking individual behavior, social, economic and cultural root causes, and the systems of power that feed root causes and behavior. 

An equity framework enables comparative analysis and reveals disproportionate impacts. For example, all children may be harmed by parental incarceration. Yet, an equity lens reveals that children of color in Jefferson County are disproportionately affected because of the racial disparities in incarceration.

Practice collective impact, alignment and artmaking

Coalition is another word that carries lots of different meanings.  Clearly, a coalition involves more than one group or organization, yet often how and why of coalition work is not readily apparent. Collective impact is a strong component that requires taking time for careful alignment of goals and actions. Artmaking is a valuable tool for inspiring new ways of thinking, social connections and energetic engagement, although way too seldom taken seriously in doing justice. 

Focusing on our local criminal justice system, LFJA is working on two positive actions to directly improve the health of children with incarcerated parents: 1) a pilot program for District Court judges to consider Family Responsibility Statements when a defendant is a custodial parent: 2) making the case for improving conditions for family video visitations and consider alternative technologies and practices.

Louisville Family Justice Advocates welcomes all participants. You can get involved by emailing familyjusticeadvocates@gmail.com 

Doing justice amid chaos and division requires ordinary people to take extraordinary actions to address mass incarceration and other pressing social injustices.  The more we share strategies and develop mutual support, the more hope there is for substantive social change now.

What is Family Justice? Why Advocate?

Nikkia’s story

Nikkia’s father was in and out of jail and prison from the time she was a baby. Yet she definitely had a relationship with him. She still recalls how her mother read letters to her from her Dad when she was growing up.

Growing up—and even now in her 20s—Nikkia feels like she was always on the border. When she was in school, she was angry a lot. Yet she did well in her advanced placement classes. Her father died five days after her 17th birthday, when she was a junior in high school.  She still misses him.  Looking back now, Nikkia reflects,  “If someone had supported my Dad while he was incarcerated, he might have had a different life.”

Nikkia’s mother managed the kitchen at a local nonprofit. Nikkia says she grew up in the kitchen. She didn’t realize that culinary arts could be a career option for her, however, till later in high school.  Excelling in a program she loved, she saw that adults started showing how much they cared about her. She believes having an adult care about you is one of the biggest factors for succeeding in high school.

Nikkia says she “has had a lot of opportunities” since she graduated from high school in 2015. She apprenticed with Louisville’s nationally known chef Edward Lee, for example. Now she is working to establish a culinary arts program in a local high school. Nikkia sees herself as “really strong now.” Given the challenges she faced growing up, she says she “didn’t have a choice” except to be strong.

What is Family Justice?

The Criminal Justice system hurts families and children in our community, so it is important to recognize and work for family justice. Louisville Family Justice Advocates (LFJA) looks at how criminal justice policies and practices can harm parents and children in our own community. We work to advance family justice face-to-face with local stakeholders and decision makers.

Here is an important policy change LFJA is working on now:

A pilot program to create and test the use of Family Responsibility Statements by local District Court Judges when making sentencing decisions involving custodial parents.

When a parent is incarcerated it often means a sudden separation from children and caregivers. There is little opportunity to consider the impact on families. If the parent pleads not guilty to their charge, he or she may have to await trail for several days or even weeks.  Family Responsibility Statements would give defendants, families, prosecutors and public defenders a chance to assess and mitigate the impact of children in all decisionmaking.

Why advocate?

Because there are racial disparities in the impact of parental incarceration on children’s health in our community..

In September 2018, The Special Project, a member of the LFJA Coalition, worked with the Louisville Metro Center for Health Equity to research how parental incarceration harms children’s health in Jefferson County. The research finds significant racial disparities in the impact on children of color compared with the overall impact on all children in our community.  LFJA advocates for all children, especially those disproportionately affected by parental incarceration, to flourish and thrive.

Stay tuned for more information and opportunities to advance family justice!

Portrait of Nikkia by Lafayierre Mitchell

LFJA Action Meeting March 12th 5:30 – 7:00

LFJA opens its 2019 year of action at The First Unitarian Church, corner of Third and York Streets, on Tuesday, March 12th at 5:30. Healthy snacks will be provided. All individuals and organizations are welcome to join us in working for equitable policies and fairer practices for families with incarcerated loved ones in Jefferson County.

The action meeting begins with an exciting panel of folks who are BUILDING LIFELINES NOT PIPELINES IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE.

Local incarceration affects everyone in our community, and we need to work together build lifelines at every stage of impact. This panel will show how their work is building lifelines for:

  • Early childhood development  
  • Youth and juvenile justice
  • Families visiting their incarcerated loved ones
  • Re-entry

In September 2018, The Special Project, a lead partner in LFJA, partnered with Metro Louisville Center for Health Equity to complete a health impact assessment of parental incarceration on children in Jefferson County.  See our Research Reports (link) for the full report and also a summary of Highlights. The report shows that parental incarceration can be harmful to all children by increasing toxic stress, and that children of color in our community are disproportionately affected by this public health risk. LFJA will be acting on the recommendations in the report and addressing this public health risk throughout 2019.