New Orleans, La. –
When Ernest Johnson's teenage son was sent to a juvenile detention center, the New Orleans father found that his own trials were just beginning.
"You miss your kid, you know. That's your first reaction is that my kid is not there. Then, you realize your kid can become a statistic in the way he's being handled," he says. "I felt isolated, you know, who do you turn to?"
Would his son be treated properly? Would the father be able to visit him? Would he get services to put his life back on track after his release, or would this incarceration lead him deeper into trouble as an adult?
Eventually, though, Johnson did find a place to turn: a New Orleans-based nonprofit called Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children, or FFLIC. The group is active statewide with programs that support family members and also organize them as advocates. FFLIC executive director Gina Womack says these family members play a vital role in changing perceptions and challenging common assumptions about youth, crime and incarceration.
"What I heard over and over, from people who were running the system and who were making laws, was that really these were throw-away kids, no one cared about these kids, they're not loved. So basically what I heard them say was that these kids can just go and be locked up and no one will miss them," she says.
"And that was just completely wrong. Our family members love their children. They are working to support their children the best that they could. And what we learned was that the families were looking for support a lot of the times, they were looking for services, they were looking for mental health treatment, they were looking for alternatives to incarceration."
While FFLIC tackles issues inside youth correctional institutions, its work also helps parents keep children out of trouble in the first place, particularly by helping them stay in school. Parents learn to advocate for their children at school hearings, for instance, and FFLIC promotes reforms to disciplinary codes.
"We recognized very early on that a lot of the children were becoming involved in the system through the school system," says Womack. "And so we are doing some work right now around what we call the school to prison pipeline to work to derail that and decrease the number of youth who are entering into the system."
For Johnson, the help he received from FFLIC has come full circle, and he's now the group's New Orleans organizer. His message to parents experiencing what he himself went through is one of determination and action.
"We understand that if you depend on other people and systems and institutions to correct some of the things that need to be corrected, you'll be waiting for a long time, so you have to take a stand about yourself and empower and give yourself the necessary tools," Johnson says.
"It's your kid, you know, no matter what. I know you may see national issues, with celebrities or somebody else, where something may happen with their kid, and they stand up for their kid. And you have that same power within yourself. Stand up for your kid."
Learn more about Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children online at www.fflic.org or call 504-522-5437.