Updated: Mar 25
By Dr. Avon Hart-Johnson
[Move the slider to 38:29 to listen to Dr. Hart-Johnson's testimony or listen to the entire session.]
The ACT SB234 Summary:
ACT relating to [incarcerated persons]; providing for the establishment of a pilot program to provide communication services free of charge between [incarcerated persons] and their children; and providing other matters properly relating thereto.
Public Testimony, Nevada
The following testimony is designed to support Senate Judiciary SB234. Dr. Avon Hart-Johnson will testify at 1:00 PST/4:00 P.M. Eastern Time on March 24, 2023, according to the following written testimony.
Hello, my name is Dr. Avon Hart-Johnson. I am pleased to provide testimony today in support of the legislation entitled, SB234, an act relating to incarcerated persons, and the establishment of a pilot program to provide communication services free of charge between the incarcerated and their children. I am the president and co-founder of DC Project Connect, a community-based volunteer organization that liaises with other like-minded organizations across the nation. I am also the chair of the Advocacy in Action Coalition. In my current role as the Advocacy in Action chairperson, our goal is to ensure the well-being of families and children affected by incarceration across the nation. Outside of advocacy, I serve in the capacity of a researcher having conducted studies domestically and abroad. I am also an educator and trauma support specialist for families. Our research specifically focuses on how families are affected by incarceration and carceral spaces for visiting. Through my research and advocacy, I have learned first-hand how incarceration can impact the entire family system, especially the children.,, making communication essential. Phone communication may bridge the gap between a child feeling loved and supported, versus feeling abandoned and isolated from their parents.
As you are aware, many families face extreme financial circumstances when a significant member of the household becomes incarcerated. The financial strain related to incarceration may mean making tradeoffs for essential items such as food, shelter, and other necessities, rather than paying for telecommunications. Yet, communication may be the single link that can preserve the parent-child relationship.
Separation has its adverse consequences especially when parent-child contact is not maintained. Besides the possible traumatic exposure based on separation, loss, and potential stigma, a child’s relationship with their parent plays an important role in offsetting potentially psychologically distressing symptoms (Horeling & Hein, 2018).
This consistent form of contact may be more imperative for the child than the adults. According to Poehlman, et al. (2010) an essential part of child development as it relates to parental incarceration is building secure attachment bonds. The critical years for these attachments are before a child reaches 18 years old. Yet, we estimate that the greatest number of children impacted are under 10 years of age. Further, children are impacted regardless of which parent goes to prison. However, they are impacted on a greater level when the mother is incarcerated. In Nevada, the number of incarcerated mothers has increased 16-fold between 1978 and 2017, according to the Vera Institute.
Parental incarceration is considered one of the 10 adverse childhood experiences that potentially have long-term consequences on young children’s health outcomes. Children’s contact with their incarcerated parents may serve as a protective factor to reduce the risk of future adversities, and fractured attachments, and may even help children to develop resilience.
Unaddressed ACES can lead to toxic stress, which disrupts the normal growth and development of a child. Children with four or more ACEs – have shown a decrease in life expectancy of 20 years. Persons who had experienced four or more categories of childhood ACEs exposure, compared to those who had experienced none, had 4- to 12-fold increased health risks for alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, and suicide attempts (Felitti, et al., 1998).
However, there is good news. We can offset these possible adversities by taking purposeful and deliberate steps. One step is to enable contact between parents and their children. Phone contact may help bridge the gap of in-person co-parenting and provide needed reinforcement to children from parents, showing that they indeed love their children and that they have not been abandoned. Small, yet significant discussions with children such as an integration of discussing children’s daily routines, their lives, school projects, important activities, and big milestones do matter-- giving these children a sense of efficacy and bolstering their self-esteem.
Finally, we know that not every child will score high on the ACES nor will they be at risk for severe mental health outcomes requiring specialized services. Many children are resilient and able to overcome some of the most unimaginable crises with the right support in place. This legislation might be one of the supports that make a difference.
I thank the sponsors of this legislation for putting it forth as a consideration. This law could be meaningful in the lives of many and may help increase a child’s potential to grow, thrive, and recover from the adversity of parental incarceration. Thank you for the opportunity to provide testimony. I am happy to address any questions.
Footnotes:  Hart-Johnson, A., & Johnson, G. (2020). Prison Staff and Family Visits: United Kingdom Case Study.  Hart-Johnson, A. M. (2014). Symbolic imprisonment, grief, and coping theory: African American women with incarcerated mates.  Hart-Johnson, A. M. & Johnson, G. (2019). Parents and Caregivers’ perceptions of storytelling as a creative intervention for children with incarcerated parents. Presented, INCCIP 2021 Conference Huddersfield, England.  Poehlmann, J., Dallaire, D., Loper, A. B., & Shear, L. D. (2010). Children’s Contact With Their Incarcerated Parents: Research Findings and Recommendations. American Psychologist, 65(6), 575–598. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0020279
Birman D, Ho J, Pulley E, Batia K, Everson ML, Ellis H et al. (2005). Mental Health Interventions for Refugee Children in Resettlement II. Natl Child Trauma Stress Network. 1–29. http://www.nctsnet.org/nctsn_assets/pdfs/promising_practices/MH_Interventions_for_Refugee_Children.pdf
Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., & Marks, J. S. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. American journal of preventive medicine, 14(4), 245-258.
Inter-Agency Standing Committee [IASC].(2007) IASC Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency. Geneva: IASC. Settings.http://www.who.int/mental_health/emergencies/guidelines_iasc_mental_health_psychosocial_june_2007.pdf.
United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, Privacy and Children. (2020). International Coalition for Children of Incarcerated Parents https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Privacy/SR/Pages/CFI_Privacy_and_Children.aspx