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Project WHAT! to give voice to youth with incarcerated parents

DETROIT - Tens of thousands of kids across Michigan have an incarcerated parent, and a new group hopes to give them a voice to share their experiences and influence policy.

The goal of Project WHAT! is to empower these kids to serve as peer mentors, facilitators, policy advocates and leaders in the movement for criminal-justice reform, said Amanda Alexander, director of the Prison and Family Justice Project at the University of Michigan Law School. Even though the situation affects so many families, she said, kids with incarcerated parents often feel very isolated. 

"Up to this point it is something that remains a point of stigma and shame for so many young people," she said, "even though so many of their classmates and neighbors are dealing with the same thing."

The group is hoping to raise $10,000 to launch the program next summer.

Conversation about how to fix the criminal justice system has been missing a key voice: that of the children who are impacted for the rest of their lives when a parent goes to jail or prison, Alexander said.

"What we need to do is to help kids tell a variety of stories," she said. "Kids can go on to college, to a variety of professions, and they aren't destined for prison or jail themselves even though they are dealing with trauma and stigma."

Project WHAT! is a collaboration between the Prison and Family Justice Project, the Harriet Tubman Center, Youth Voice and Motherly Intercession. It's based on a highly successful program in California which is credited with helping to change the protocol for San Francisco police officers when responding to children if they witness their parents' arrest. 

A crowdfunding campaign for Project WHAT is online at indiegogo.com.