Embracing the Kids of Incarcerated Parents

Since 2006, Project What! has given voice to a forgotten and vulnerable group: the more than 2.4 million children across the country who have a parent in prison or jail.


Launched by Community Works in San Francisco, the program trains teachers, social workers and those in the criminal justice system to pay more heed to the needs and rights of these young people.


Impressively, much of the curriculum is written and shaped by the very kids the program serves. It is through their stories that the adults running the criminal justice system can keep a broader perspective of what’s at stake in their decisions.


Since it began, Project What! has expanded its reach throughout the Bay Area and seven states beyond. It has also helped write the Children of Incarcerated Parents Bill of Rights. This, among other things, seeks to keep youth safe when their parents are being arrested, and encourages that  parents be incarcerated close to where their children live in order to foster easier visitation.


Program and policy director Mailee Wang spoke to Bay Area Parent about Project What!, and why she’s so proud of the children she serves.


For more information on Project What!, visit communityworkswest.org.



Why is Project What! needed?


Project What is really small, so it’s kind of scary to think that it makes this huge difference on these children. I think we’re able to give the human face to what children are facing. Without our voice, it would be a lot easier to ignore this population. Most of the time, people don’t think about the child when the parent is incarcerated.



How are youth involved in training those in the criminal justice system?


Back in 2006, the youth held focus groups for about 100 service providers in San Francisco to try and figure out what information the service providers wanted to hear. And, they wanted to hear the stories from the youth. So, our presentation includes messages from youth and even their grandparents about their struggles in visiting, and also in having absent parents. Usually these stories and the Q&As (with youth) are the most effective method of our training.



What else have they accomplished?


They’ve sponsored Get on the Bus, a nonprofit program to help kids visit their parents in prison on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. This was the decision of the youth. They recognized that Project What! is a support program for themselves, but they wanted to reach out even further, and they picked these projects in order to help a bigger population.



What makes you most proud?


We’ve expanded so much over the last couple years. We started as a small program in San Francisco to being sought out in other states. We have an 80-page resource guide that the youth developed, which is  available to service providers. People want to replicate us now. The youth are actually developing as leaders and feel empowered to tell their story to a complete stranger, because that can be very intimidating. It’s a one-of-a kind support group for the youth.


Millicent Skiles is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent.

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