Hidden voices: the life experiences of African American adolescent girls with mothers in prison
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On any given day, parental incarceration affects roughly 2 million children. The increasing number of prison inmates is causing an alarming increase in the number of children impacted by the phenomenon of parental incarceration, and yet little is known about this population. Existing studies indicate that these children experience feelings of extreme sadness, fear, anger, guilt, anxiety, abandonment, and loneliness. Some of these young people display problematic and aggressive behavior at school, home, and in the community, while others turn inward, withdraw, and become seriously depressed. Scholars report that these young people are six times more likely to go to jail or prison than their peers, activating the continued cycle of incarceration started by their parent or grandparent. Almost none of the existing data has been collected directly from the children of prisoners. This dissertation is a detailed examination of the perceived impact of maternal imprisonment from the perspective of a select group of teenage girls whose mothers are in prison. Using an ethnographic approach, this 18 month long study included multiple individual interviews, participant observation, and document/artifact review to better understand the lives of these African American adolescent females. Multiple theoretical frameworks are examined to understand the needs and concerns of the girls as well as their interactions with their incarcerated parent, their custodial parent or caregiver, and the ecology at large. Special attention is given to issues of race, culture, and adolescent development. Findings suggest that caregiver identified needs and concerns regarding young people with a parent in prison may differ from those identified by the youth themselves. Data from this study show that children of prisoners may have unmet physical and health needs and unnoticed psychological and emotional needs. They often live in families with very limited financial, social, and emotional resources. Additionally, community support and services appear to be sorely lacking for these teens and their families. The dissertation ends by considering implications for social work and making practice, policy, and research recommendations.