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The Other Side of the Bars

CLA undergraduates tackle the impacts of the criminal justice system on families in unique research lab
November 9, 2016

Child's drawing showing himself with his brother and his grandparents, but not his parents

Child's drawing showing himself with his brother and his grandparents, but not his parents
Drawing by an 8-year-old boy of his family. He drew his brother and 3 sets of grandparents, including the grandparents who care for him since his mother is incarcerated.

When was the last time you saw a story about America’s criminal justice system on the news? This morning? Last night?

Now, when was the last time that you heard a story about the children impacted by the criminal justice system? About the children of those who are incarcerated?

The fact that you might have a problem answering the second question lies at the very heart of research being conducted by a unique team at the University of Minnesota. Led by Professor Rebecca Shlafer—a child psychologist at the Medical School—and staffed largely by CLA undergrads, the lab is producing work that looks at what happens to those kids on the other side of the bars.

Groundbreaking Research

Now in its fifth year, the lab gives undergraduates the chance to focus on one area of the problem. Student research projects have included everything from analysis of drawings by the children of incarcerated parents to the impact of developmentally-appropriate materials on conversations about incarceration between children and their caretakers. The experience provides a powerful learning opportunity for the students and a steady stream of data that fuel Professor Shlafer’s larger research objectives.
Portrait: Tiffany Hamidjaja

Actually Making a Difference

Undergraduate Tiffany Hamidjaja has been researching trauma-informed arrest practices that police officers can take to decrease the negative impact of parental arrest on children. Read about Hamidjaja's research

But why run a lab in the first place? Professor Shlafer explains that the sheer size of the problem, and the fact that there is very little work that has been—or is being—done in this field means there is an enormous amount of research to get through.

“In Minnesota alone, 76 percent of all incarcerated women are mothers with minor children,” she explains, “And 66 percent of all incarcerated men are fathers with minor children.” Take it as a measure of how little is known about this topic that the Minnesota Department of Corrections did not have those figures—did not know the prevalence of paternal incarceration in their facilities—until just last year, when Professor Shlafer shared her data.

Other data analyzed by the lab show that parental incarceration increases children's risk of mental health problems, substance use and abuse, and delinquency. In turn, what is created are, “Intergenerational cycles of poverty, limited education, limited access to opportunity,” says Shlafer. “These are systemic problems that are creating generations of kids and families who are interfacing with the criminal justice system. And there are dramatic, long-term consequences for health and family well-being.”

“Some days it feels overwhelming,” she says. “But that’s why it's so great to have a group of such committed, passionate, thoughtful, engaged, socially-aware students who can pick a piece of a project and dive into it.”

Mentoring Across Disciplines, Generations, and  Colleges

Liberal arts undergraduates working with medical school faculty might seem like an unlikely model to some, but not to Professor Shlafer, “I had an undergraduate research experience that set both my content course and a developmental path around mentoring,” she explains, “Many years later, I thought, that’s something I can create, a place where students feel connected with this work, where they feel passionate about it. They feel connected to their communities through this project and they feel like they’re a part of something despite the size of this institution.”

Each semester Professor Shlafer has between six to eight undergraduates working in her lab. Over the years, she estimates she’s mentored 25 undergraduates, nearly all of whom come from the social sciences.

Her students say that far from doing “grunt work, “ they are encouraged to pursue important lines of questioning and to gather, analyze and present their findings. Just a week ago, several members of Shlafer’s lab presented at the The National Council on Family Relations (NCFR) national conference in Minneapolis.

“I have learned skills that I would never be able to in class such as communicating with mentors or professors and collaborating on work with scholars from multiple disciplines,” says Natalie Berreth, who has been involved in the lab since spring 2014 and will graduate next spring.

And for some, it has given them a very clear post-graduation direction. Megan Massie, who just graduated in May 2016 with a degree in sociology of law, criminality, and deviance says, “It's caused me to … go in a new path. Now, I want to find a program where I can hopefully do similar work—in academia and in the community—that Professor Shlafer is doing now. I think the work she does is important to the community, and I hope to find a career that can make a positive impact as well.”

This fall Professor Shlafer recruited a new cohort of student researchers and hopes to continue the project for years to come. But already, her group has impacted policy: they helped establish state laws that protect incarcerated women from mistreatment as well as ensure access to comprehensive pregnancy and parenting programs.

“The fact that this is an understudied problem means that we can really have an impact,” she says, “I tell my students, ‘Pick any part of this problem and we can make a difference.’”