Born and raised in New Orleans, Dominque Jones had a vision for change, back in May of 2018. As an adult child of an incarcerated parent, she faced the challenges of growing up without a biological father. Her father was sentenced to life in prison in 1982 and has been behind bars since Dominque was born.
The impact of having a parent in prison can be far-reaching; from affecting mental health and behavior, to limiting a child’s prospects in life and education. Often the children of the incarcerated feel shame, sadness, confusion and anger as they attempt to navigate life without their parent.
“I realized the uniqueness that I had to offer to all children impacted by parental incarceration,” Dominque told Dateline. “And so I started Daughters Beyond Incarceration (DBI), along with my incarcerated father.”
Daughters Beyond Incarceration was founded to help daughters form strong and positive relationships with their incarcerated fathers while they are in prison.
According to the Pew Charitable Trust, in 2010, 54% of inmates are parents, including 120,000 mothers and 1.1 million fathers.
Dominque told Dateline that, as of now, they are mentoring 53 girls between the ages of 8 and 18 in low-income communities of New Orleans. The mentors work to ensure that these girls are developing and navigating life in positive ways.
Dominque said, “The one thing that nobody does in this work – is ask us how we’re doing, how we’re developing, and what ways we’re going about navigating this life. It’s important for us to heal.”
Dominque said that of her mentees, about 10 have fathers currently in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, commonly known as Angola. She said that it has been difficult to work with the prison, as many of the young girls are not allowed to visit unsupervised since they are under the age of 18.
“We are currently working on implementing policies that will allow joint visits between families,” Dominque told Dateline. “This will make a lasting impact on all children of incarcerated parents.”
DBI plans to attack the issues of mass incarceration by eliminating the barriers that affect the communication gap between fathers and daughters. Their goals include helping the fathers re-enter society successfully and reducing recidivism.
One thing Dominque noted was that it is difficult for the children in 2019, with all of the changes in social media.
“We don’t know what it’s like to be 8 or 12 or 16 right now [in a world revolving around social media],” Dominque said. “All of the girls, just like me, experienced an adverse childhood in some way, we just experienced it at different phases. But, we’ve all had periods of neglect and embarrassment and we all have that one situation we will never forget that involved our incarcerated loved ones.”
Dominque told Dateline the organization holds many events and spends time with their mentees multiple times a month.
“We do trauma-informed care workshops,” Dominque said. “Through those workshops, we try to help those girls heal, instead of bottling it up and running away from their feelings. We also communicate with the dads to talk about positive ways to communicate with your daughter.”
Dominque told Dateline that, “once you’re in, you’re in,” and that DBI will continue to support their mentees, even after their parent may have been released, because the traumas the children faced don’t immediately dissipate.
While this program is beneficial to the children, it is in the same way impactful on the parent. Dominque said that, “the biggest change I see is that the fathers don’t feel like failures anymore. Even if a father isn’t here, he can still parent from prison.”
As for the stigma felt by children of incarcerated parents, Dominque said, “We all don’t end up in prison. We all are not high-school dropouts. And changing the narrative is extremely important to us. We are definitely the definition of resilient.”
Read more about Daughters Beyond Incarceration.
Editor’s Note: In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we reached out to Dominque Johnson and discussed mounting concerns she continues to face as both a leader of marginalized children, and as a daughter of an incarcerated father herself.
Earlier this year, Dominque gave birth to twin sons, but instead of being able to celebrate with her father, they were kept apart by COVID-19. She spent the subsequent months racked with guilt and unease. She constantly worried if he would remain healthy, but still had to maintain her professional obligations.
"I still had to answer to all of these girls about what's going to happen to [their] dads, and apply for grants," Dominque said. "And I had other fathers calling asking me, 'Can you help me talk to my daughter? Can you help me stay connected?' It was a complete train wreck."
Thankfully, her father was able to avoid the worst of COVID-19 as prisons around the country shut down, but that left her without the same connection to her father. The state opted to substitute in-person visits with videocalls she stated had many technological issues. To her, it was poorly thought out and only heightened families’ anxiety. “[They] retraumatized a group of children,” Dominque told Dateline. “A group of people who are already left out of the conversation.”
"We never really had faith in the justice system, but now we don't have faith in our city leaders, our state leaders, and our local leaders," Dominque said. "There were so many decisions made about children that didn’t include children. How do you ignore someone that you consider you love the most?”
This feeling of neglect prompted advocacy groups to join forces with Louisiana State Representative, C. Denise Marcelle, to work on a bill that would ensure they would have a voice in future conversations at the state level. In July, Governor John Bel Edwards signed their bill that established the Council on the Children of Incarcerated Parents and Caregivers; which DBI will be represented in with one member.
Despite these challenges, DBI has continued its efforts in mentoring, safeguarding, advocating virtually for the more than 60 girls that they oversee. In September, the organization has two town hall meetings set that will feature impacted youths, there to discuss the needs and concerns amid the pandemic.
Dominque wistfully commented that it was time that DBI expand throughout Louisiana, “We’ve taken care of this in New Orleans. NOLA knows us, NOLA loves us,” Dominque said. “So, we want to go to Baton Rouge, Lafayette, we want to go to Shreveport. These children need our love across the state, and we need the money, we need the support to do that.”