The Work Is Never Done: Mental Health, Mass Incarceration, and African American Custodial Grandparen
By Frances Adomako, Ed.M (Counseling Psychology Doctoral Student, Howard University)
Traditionally, African American grandparents have played a critical role in the caretaking responsibilities of their grandchildren. This has allowed their adult children to be able to pursue educational and employment opportunities. However, how the consequences of mass incarceration on the African American family system extend beyond the incarcerated individual into the lives of their children and the grandparents left to care for them are little discussed.
Currently, 1 in 9 African American children has an incarcerated parent (Rutgers University, 2014). While many of the children are left to reside with the other parent or placed in foster care, about half are placed with their grandparents, who serve as their primary custodial caregivers (Rutgers University, 2014). Thus, the deleterious effect of mass incarceration is made more visible not only in the family structure but also in the immediate and long-term psychological and emotional outcomes of the children and grandparents left behind.
Mass Incarceration’s Ripple Effects
Due to the ‘ripple effect’ of mass incarceration, African American children often experience difficulties when their parents become incarcerated. Such effects include:
Psychological and emotional problems that interfere with their academic performance and social functioning.
Attachment difficulties as a result of unexpected and often unexplained separation from their parents.
Social stigma, insecurity, and isolation stemming from embarrassment, being bullied for having an incarcerated parent, and internalizing parental problems.
African American grandparents face their own unique challenges due to simultaneously having a child who is incarcerated as they undertake their role as a custodial parent. As a result, they encounter stressors that further compromise their physical, psychological, and social health.
Thus, it is critical that grandparents create a safe, secure, and supportive home environment that allows their grandchildren to communicate their fears and anxiety, express themselves, and create healthy positive relationships with peers and adults. In tackling this task, African American grandparents face their own unique challenges due to simultaneously having a child who is incarcerated as they undertake their role as a custodial parent. As a result, they encounter stressors that further compromise their physical, psychological, and social health.
These stressors can be:
Financial – grandparents must obtain or maintain employment in order to provide food, housing, clothing, and other necessities for their grandchildren in addition to providing financial assistance to their incarcerated adult child.
Community-related– grandparents who reside in under-resourced communities grapple with limited access to quality health care services, economic, and educational opportunities for themselves and their grandchildren
Physical – they can experience exacerbated chronic physical health problems including arthritis, asthma, heart disease, and hypertension.
Mental – many grandparents struggle with depression and low self-esteem from the shame, guilt, and anxiety attached to coping with the grief and loss that result from their child’s emotional absence.
How Can Psychologists and Mental Health Service Professionals Help?
To attend to the crisis of mass incarceration and its effects on custodial grandparents it is important that psychologists and mental health service professionals recognize the strength, resilience, and cultural values of African American custodial grandparents. Here are some helpful approaches:
1. Provide information and access to support groups and psychoeducational workshops.
Given the pervasiveness of racism in the United States and its long-term physical health effects on individuals and families, kinship care and extended family support are a resilience strategy and community response to familial disruption (Scannapieco & Jackson, 1996). Connecting grandparents to support groups can enhance this practice. Support groups provide opportunities for community solutions to mass incarceration such as advocacy, education, and skill-building (Ohara & McNab, 2015). They encourage social connectedness in the form of access to resources (e.g., nutrition, housing, and medical assistance) and emotional, educational, and psychological support that can address the isolation and stigma faced by the grandparent and child of the incarcerated parent. Psychoeducational topics focused on parenting, grief/loss, childhood behavioral issues, and legal assistance provide opportunities for grandparents to enact their agency in finding solutions in a guided and supportive environment.
2. Use family systems-focused therapy.
African American grandparents are often revered and respected members of the family (Gibson, 2002). A strong cultural value, this role flexibility and elasticity may also bring about additional stressors and challenges. For example, grandchildren may need to adjust to new household rules and grandparents and grandchildren may navigate a new family hierarchy during parental incarceration. Family therapy can highlight the positive attributes of African American grandparents while attending to the emotional experiences of both the grandchild and grandparent. Therapy may involve all members of the family and can foster and reinforce the relationship between grandchildren and their grandparents. It can help them to understand the underlying distress and trauma, including any developmental behavioral issues and provide a safe environment for all to express their thoughts and feelings. Family therapy can enhance healthy family dynamics and interactions and help families to form and support a new positive family narrative (Bachay & Buzzi, 2012).
3. Provide individual psychotherapy for grandparents and grandchildren.
Individual intensive mental health care services can have profound positive effects for the grandchildren and the grandparent. For the grandchild, they receive one-on-one attention that provides them with a safe environment to express their feelings of loss, sadness, anxiety, anger, frustrations, or even disappointment over the absence of their parent. For the grandparent, they can safely explore any negative feelings and challenges such as disappointment and resentment associated with their new role and their relationships with grandchildren, adult child, other family members, and community.
While the issue of mass incarceration permeates current discourse around the criminal justice system and Black Lives Matter, it is important that psychologists and mental health service providers attend to and promote the physical and mental well-being of African American custodial grandparents and their grandchildren.
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Frances Adomako, Ed.M is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology at Howard University. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from St. John’s University and her Master of Education in Counseling Psychology from Teachers College of Columbia University. Frances’ clinical, research, and professional experiences broadly focus on issues of trauma and activism/resistance, specifically understanding the psychosocial impact of African Americans’ use of activism to manage race-based stress and trauma. To this end, she is interested in developing evidence-based clinical approaches to understanding the relationship between race-based trauma/stress, coping, and resilience. She is currently completing her clinical externship rotation at The Washington D.C. VA Medical Center where she receives specialized training in working with veterans who experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder(PTSD) and Military Sexual Trauma (MST).
Image credit: Rights to the image were kindly provided by Mr. Green, grandfather of four.
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