The African American Child: Video Transcript

Dr. Yvette R. Harris [Professor of Psychology]: Well, the general goal in writing the book was to really approach the topic from a developmental perspective. So, when I started this journey in terms of writing the book there wasn't a book out there that dealt with physical, cognitive, and social issues germane to the lives of African American children.

One of the things in writing the first book [The African American Child: Development and Challenges], I was astounded, overwhelmed, and surprised about the heightened mortality rate of African American infants; the high maternal mortality rate for African American mothers.

What I mean by that is, over a 40- or 50-year period the mortality rate for us, as a nation, has decreased significantly, but it has not decreased significantly for African American infants. When we think of infant mortality we are thinking of an infant dying within the first 30 days life. So, what causes that infant mortality? Or, what contributes to infant mortality rate? Those are the unknown hidden factors and why it persists even six years after writing the first edition, we still don't know.

With reference to the second edition of the book, there are probably two significant policy changes that will have an impact on the lives of African American children: One is the Affordable Healthcare Act signed by President Obama most recently. What it does is open the door to better healthcare for African American children, better healthcare for African American mothers, and there may be the solution to decreasing the infant mortality rate and the high maternal mortality rate; the other is the Race to the Top initiative, or the educational initiative. So what does it do? It pulls us away from No Child Left Behind, where teachers can actually focus on teaching, teaching processes, teaching how to learn, and that may better prepare African American children for middle schools, high schools, and even college.

For the first edition, we looked primarily at infants through school-aged children — so, anywhere from birth to through maybe about 10. For the second edition, and I'm really excited about this, is we are going to include some information on African American adolescence. So, we're increasing and expanding our focus and we're looking at it more in terms of what I consider to be a chronological focus on African American children.

One of the things we are going to include in this treatment of the textbook is clearly peer relationships, juvenile justice issues, mental health issues with African American adolescents, family relationships and how those might change for African American adolescents in comparison to African American children. And we are also going to include information on education and high school completion with African Americans. And the focus is to really identify those programs that work. Taft High School [Cincinnati, OH] is a great example that we want to include in this textbook. They are doing phenomenal things including providing mentoring, structure, and family support, to insure that African American adolescents graduate from high school and go on to college.

I hope other schools follow Taft; I really do, as a model. And one of the things is to identify that in a textbook, such as our textbook, where other schools can probably contact the coordinator of the Taft program to implement it in their own school district.

For the first edition, we made it very clear that we wanted the audience to be developmental, clinical researchers, educators, social workers; that was the agenda. For the second edition we believe we'd like it to reach educators, researchers, undergraduate students, and graduate students, anyone who works to improve the lives of African American children.

If I were to kind of focus anyone in on where do you go from here, let's look at health and let's look at education. So whatever material that we include in this second edition; focus on the health chapter. Kind of look to see or investigate whether or not this Affordable Healthcare Act is making any impact on infant mortality rates and maternal mortality rates for African Americans: African American children and African American mothers. In terms of education, let's be consistent in our approach in providing quality education for African American children, for children in general, but certainly for African American children in particular. So, is the the Race to the Top, is it really going to provide the structure that we need to increase high school graduation rates for African American adolescents?

The first edition, I actually included one of my former undergraduate students, Dr. James Graham who is a Miami alum, and he actually worked in my laboratory when I first got here and helped collect data on a NSF grant that I had. And I was encouraged by a book agent to pick up…I was told two things by a book agent: one was to lose my attachment to this book so it could get published in my lifetime and the second was to pick up a co-author. So I immediately thought of Jimmy, he doesn't like me to call him Jimmy, but I immediately thought of Dr. Graham, because Dr. Graham brings in a social development component; I'm a cognitive developmental psychologist by training, so he brings in that social developmental component. And so, it's been a really good marriage so to speak.

It started back in I think 2008, what prompted me to do the research and write the book and to develop it as an applied line of research. I was invited to present at a conference, and this was right after the publication of The African American Child book, and they wanted me to talk about African American children in comparison to the criminal justice system; that was really something we neglected to put in the first edition that will be in the second edition; we will place that information in the second edition of The African American Child book, but nevertheless, as I was researching, and kind of building my background knowledge for that area, I fell in love with the area; I fell in love with the area for all children. So, I approached my publisher and asked her if she would consider an edited version of children with incarcerated parents. And one of the things I wanted to do is fill a gap in the literature, again as a developmental psychologist, I wanted to talk more about theoretical issues, I wanted to talk about developmental and clinical issues for children of incarcerated parents. So what we did was assembled a group of people who could write on theory, who could write on methodology, who could write on developmental and clinical issues as well as legislation and as well as programming for these children. So that started my journey in 2008 in this area of children with incarcerated parents.

Camp Determination grew out of my desire and the students in my lab, I'll tell you a little bit about how we got to Camp Determination, but it really grew out of our desire to really provide support for these children during a week in the summer. It originated from a lab meeting with my students, who were getting ready to collect data on spatial information on mothers and kids; I just kind of pulled back and said, “Let's do something that might be related to the book”; so all of the students in the lab at that time had experience as being camp counselors, so the lab put together a Camp Determination. It was a one-week summer camp, a module-focused summer camp. What does that mean? It means that we decided that we would focus on some issue that the children might have to deal with; so we had a module on anger management, we had a module on communication and each lab member directed that module. So what that means is that they were responsible for creating the activities for the children.

These were undergraduate students at the time. Vanessa Harris, my graduate student now actually, graduated from Cal State Fullerton and came out to help us with the lab for the summer, so, one graduate student and the rest were undergraduate students and Miami students as well.

So day one of Camp Determination was a weeklong day camp. We started at nine in the morning with breakfast for the kids and then we moved straight into the module. Day one of the camp, I think we dealt with communication as a module. So what I saw from day one of Camp Determination to day five of Camp Determination when they graduated is more engaging with one another, more engaging with their counselors, and a real reluctance to leave Camp Determination.

We did about a six month follow-up in this way: we sent out a newsletter to the parents just kind of giving them some update, because we refer to this as "After Camp Determination." So we send out a newsletter. We also send out a letter to the parents just asking if they were interested in the child's counselor continuing interacting with the child and then we kind of stop the follow-up after that.

Children of incarcerated parents typically deal with issues of anger, abandonment; you know hostility, depression, and then a host of academic problems as well. Our goal for Camp Determination was to deal with anger management, and I think I said early on communication issues, coping strategies; just so they would be better prepared at some level to understand, or to cope, with parental incarceration.

Well out of Camp Determination and my interest in this area, I was trying to think of ways I could carve out my own niche. So what's the big gap in children with incarceration literature — what's the big gap? The big gap deals with reunification — it's like the 'elephant in the room'. So why the resistance to deal with reunification? Because you've got people who believe these parents probably should never be reunified with their children. But in all reality, they will be reunified with their children at some level. So that started my interest in looking at ways to better prepare parents to reunify with their children. And we want to be very clear that they are going to be reunified in different ways. Some parents will go back into a direct parenting role, some parents will parent on the periphery, and some parents will engage in co-parenting. So we started our first series of reunification research at Pathways in Cincinnati and with a multi-method approach. Vanessa continued with her research for her thesis, looking at the kind of social support mothers who are coming out of prison might need; we already know they are going to need housing, education, and healthcare, but what do they need in terms of social support to help them transition back to one of their parenting roles. So that's the kind of general thrust and goal of the reunification research.

One of the things I've been doing most recently, and it's been with the Urban League, is I've been facilitating parenting groups with parents who are transitioning; these are both mothers and fathers who are transitioning from prison. They attend the Urban League; I think it's a one-week workshop that provides them with I think it's called soft skills training, job skills training, and job skills preparation and then at the end of that workshop for them, I come in and talk a little about parenting. And what's really phenomenal is an expressed desire to be the best parent they can be, but there's also an understanding that their past will have an influence on how they presently parent; so we kind of work through coming up with ways to work through that past to be the best parents that they can possibly be.

Some of the advice we provide them is on discipline. How do you effectively discipline? A lot of the parents use what I refer to as old school, 1950s discipline; that doesn’t work today in the 21st century, so we think of, as a group, the more effective methods to discipline. And what I like is the playoff with one another. I step back as my role as a facilitator and let them give one another advice on providing certain kinds of discipline. Affection, nurturing; we talk about ways you can give affection without surrendering parenting roles; how you can nurture without surrendering your parenting roles in the home environment.

The children do need a sense of security that parents are not going to go away again, but they also need to realize that if parents do go away again, because we live in a real world filled with real issues and real problems and there may be a chance that the parent will go away again, but what they need to realize is they're not at fault. You know, it's nothing for them to be ashamed of; they did nothing to cause the parent to go away.

This is the applied line of research. My experience has been that when I talk to other developmental psychologists who are all in this line of research that we all kind of stumbled in to it reluctantly. And I think the reluctance was, "I don't know what I'm getting into," but then after we stumble we develop a passion for it. And I do; it's just an absolute passion.

Last fall, I taught a capstone titled, Children of Incarcerated Parents. I had six very dedicated, bright, ambitious students who read articles on children of incarcerated parents, they read book chapters, they facilitated discussions with their classmates on children of incarcerated parents, and as an end-of-the-course project, they put together a manual for parents transitioning out of a corrections center back into their parenting role. And we did this in collaboration with the administrators from River City Correctional Center on Colerain. And they're actually using the manual; I was informed by the administrators that the parents are actually using the manuals, so I will be going to River City on March 15th, [2013] interviewing the parents about the effectiveness of the manual.

[March 2013]