Two Chicago Leaders Aim to Increase Mental Wellness for Children of Incarcerated Parents
For Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia and Liz Dozier, a good support system made all the difference in how they endured the strain of having an incarcerated parent. It allowed them to pursue careers in clinical psychology and education, respectively, and now, with the recently announced Leadership Venture at Chicago Beyond, the two women are ready to pay it forward.
“What I had found from my personal experience is the value of having a good support system,” Tapia said. “But for those that don’t have that good support system and those that have difficulty maintaining a bond with that incarcerated parent, I mean it’s a traumatic experience that can have any number of issues that can be related to having trauma in your life.”
Over the next 18 months, Tapia will be researching the effects having an incarcerated parent has on the mental wellness of a child, and what can be done to avoid an ongoing cycle of intergenerational incarceration.
Tapia is well familiar with the issue, not just personally but professionally. Like Dozier, she grew up visiting a father who was locked up in prison. She then went on to receive a doctorate in psychology and took an executive position with the Cook County Department of Corrections, where she was eventually named warden of Cook County Jail.
At the jail, which Sheriff Tom Dart has described as one of the “largest mental institutions in the country,” Tapia developed the groundbreaking Mental Health Transition Center, which has helped contribute to a reduction in both prison population and recidivism. Now, she’s taking her expertise to the streets of Chicago.
“It’s about working with the people in the community and figuring out what those needs are,” Tapia said. “It’s important to not go in with a set of solutions, and instead listen to what the community is saying that they need.”
She has the full backing of Chicago Beyond, the self-described “youth equity platform” that Dozier founded after leaving Fenger High School, where she served as Principal for six years. In her time at Fenger, Dozier’s leadership initiatives and fundraising efforts helped bring about an increase in the graduation rate from 40% to 80%. She’s hoping that Chicago Beyond can have a similarly positive impact on a citywide scale.
“In the same way there are incredible organizations in the city there are also incredible leaders who, if given the opportunity, could really address the problems we face not just in our city but beyond our city,” Dozier said.
Since their launch in 2016, Chicago Beyond has partnered with 12 local organizations like Storycatcher’s Theatre and the Lawndale Christian Legal Center to improve life outcomes for young Chicagoans, according to their website. They are now placing their trust and their resources in Tapia.
“The beauty of what Nneka brings to the table is that she’s seen firsthand, through her own experience and through her professional experience, some of these problems up close … So who better to lead solutions and to support [existing] solutions than her?” Dozier said.
Both women agree that the strength of the Leadership Venture lies in the freedom it gives Tapia to investigate the problem of parental incarceration.
“Instead of going in and saying ‘OK, here’s what we’re going to do,’ Nneka is meeting with not only community stakeholders and leaders of these larger organizations, but also families to figure out where are the holes in the services people have,” Dozier said.
Neither Tapia nor Dozier know what the exact outcome of the program will be at the end of 18 months given the ever-evolving nature of the venture.
“It could be the development of a program or it could be the mobilization of those resources, which is what Chicago Beyond is all about,” said Tapia.
What they do know is that the issue of parental incarceration is one worth tackling. Though she is careful to point out that everyone’s situation is different, Tapia said that some of the possible effects of having a parent in prison are increased likelihood of developing a mental illness, susceptibility to dropping out of school, and difficulty with social interactions with people.
“We all have a stake in this,” Tapia said. “This is just going to be Chicago Beyond’s stake as well.”