Home News Center YJLI Fellow Dominque Jones-Johnson Fights for Children with Incarcerated Parents

YJLI Fellow Dominque Jones-Johnson Fights for Children with Incarcerated Parents

July 30, 2021
Tracey Tucker and Jonnay Anthony

What got you into youth justice?

My father is in his 39th year of a life sentence. To put this in perspective, I’m currently 38 years old and my father has been incarcerated my entire life. The first time I saw my father he was in shackles at my grandfather’s (his dad’s) funeral. The trauma of this experience, which no one prepared me for, caused me to act out in school. I fought the entire week about my grandfather’s funeral. I was a star track athlete in both high school and college; and, because I was an athlete, there were people to support me, but no one truly understood what I was experiencing.

This time also represented a breaking point in my relationship with my father. I would often ask him when he was coming home, and he would always respond ‘I’m coming home soon.’ The day before the state track meet I got into a fight and made the decision to cut contact with my father. I didn’t understand all that he was going through and he couldn’t provide me with the answers I needed about his sentence. So, I graduated high school, went to college and graduated without speaking to my father. Then, Hurricane Katrina happened and my son was born.  After these life-changing events, I decided I needed to reconnect with my father. 

During this time I had also been working as the assistant to the Chief Public Defender.  I am well known in our community, so whenever someone had an issue with their public defender, I would hear about it. I started advocating in different ways for the community at the public defenders’ office. One of the things I noticed was that there was an internship program for high school students, but youth from the public schools didn’t know about it; the program would target white youth or youth from schools that had testing admission criteria. I started going to public schools to present about the internship program, and I was working hard at the public defenders’ office - changing a lot of viewpoints. I spoke to them about working in the human resources department and receiving a raise. Well, I was given a response about others working longer than I had been working there. I told them ‘you have to pay me or I’m going to leave.’  Not only did I end up leaving but I ended up starting Daughters Beyond Incarceration (DBI). 

After making the decision to reconnect with my father, we started working on our relationship. My father was finally ready to talk about his case and all that he was experiencing as a person in prison. This process taught us so much about what children with incarcerated parents need and how to support them, especially about including children in the conversations about what’s happening in the family. It also taught us how important it is for the community to understand what happens to families when someone is incarcerated. The focus is always on the crime and the victim but not the children who are losing their parents. 

Through conversations with my father, we decided to start DBI to help girls impacted by mass incarceration in May of 2018. DBI is a youth-led organization, so we respond directly to the needs of what our girls tell us they need or would like to see. For instance, they requested classes on personal finance and cosmetology and makeup classes so we worked to put those together. We take what they request and connect their interests to overall leadership development. Our overall goal is to make sure the girls can advocate for themselves as well as understand their own emotional triggers that they have due to their parent’s incarceration. 

Tell me about your advocacy project.

In 2020, Louisiana passed a law that created the Council on the Children of Incarcerated Parents and Caregivers that will provide research and advocate for all children impacted by their parent’s incarceration in the state. My advocacy project is to help connect children throughout Louisiana with the council. We’ve finalized our curriculum and are working with partner organizations to set up listening sessions and get them registered with DBI. Once these children have been identified, we will teach them leadership skills and how to advocate for themselves.  My hope is that other states will create similar councils to research the impact and hear the experiences of young people. 

What is your dream for youth justice?

My dream for youth justice is that our children are treated fairly. There are 94,000 children in Louisiana with incarcerated parents. I just recently received the data that there are 16,000 men with children currently incarcerated in Louisiana. I hear these statistics and all I can think about is how these children are being ignored and no one knows how to support them. We just had a fundraiser and our theme was “Incarceration isn’t a face, it’s a vibe.”  Through this event, we wanted to share the experiences of our young people to help others understand what they are experiencing. 

For example, a school may hold a parent involvement event like “Daddy Donuts Day,” which could trigger one of my girls because their parent isn’t there to participate. If they act out and get suspended or expelled, no one in the school takes the time to ask them what was really going on. If they did, they would learn that the young person got into a fight, but it was a result of the school not being sensitive or aware of their experience. We also want to create a different narrative about children with incarcerated parents, so we had a photo campaign to share beautiful pictures of beautiful black girls and push back against the narrative that children with incarcerated parents are not going to be well kept or put together.

What motivates you?

I believe the response to this question changes over time. Right now, I’m motivated by the start of the upcoming school year and the need to ensure that the girls I serve are prepared for school. I’m motivated by the people in the community I serve. Quite frankly, I get motivated when something happens that makes me angry especially if it involves one of the girls I serve in my program. I go into defense mode. I stand up for these children. 

I’m also motivated by my children and my family and from my own experience as a young person. I want to ensure that these girls always have someone there to support them with whatever they are going through. I am inspired by the difference we are making in the lives of these children and their families. The girls we serve thank us for helping them to share their experiences. 

Ensuring that the voices of these young people are heard is my dream for youth justice. I hope to be sitting down and watching these girls advocating and designing the futures they hope to see. 

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