Dismantling the Cradle to Prison Pipeline

The Children's Defense Fund released the State of America's Children 2012 Handbook last month, an annual compilation of national data on child well-being, as well as its Portrait of Inequality which focuses on the state of the most vulnerable black and Latino children and youth in America. While the snapshots are sobering for both populations, the report on black children outlines a stunning set of statistics that paint the contours of CDF's theory: that black children are fed into a Cradle to Prison Pipeline at higher rates than any other group.

There is quite a bit of work that has been done on the school-to-prison pipeline - a confluence of forces, including zero tolerance policies that push disadvantaged children out of school and in into the criminal justice system. CDF's Cradle to Prison theory argues that black children and youth not only face multiple risks, but that from birth and throughout childhood and adolescence, confront debilitating obstacles that often push them into premature death, prison, and failed lives. Some black children face an entire childhood of hardship and stressors that many adults could not withstand, and ultimately fall into an "abyss of poverty, hunger, homelessness and despair".

Hmm, you might think, could they be overstating this? You may even consider black children that you know who have overcome tremendous odds and achieved success - proving that some can climb their way out of the morass of disadvantage that so easily entangles. However, CDF's report is not a collection of assertions, but rather a fact-based siren warning that an unacceptably high percentage of black children will meet this fate if adults (you and me) don't figure out how to fix things.

The report walks you through a child's life, who is born into poverty (black children are nearly four times as likely as white children to live in extreme poverty) and into a family structure with limited support (51 percent live with only one mother). When that family structure breaks down or fails them, the systems step in (black children are more than twice as likely as white children to be in foster care) or the systems take away (black children are over six times as likely as white children to have a parent in prison). For many, the struggle to live and thrive begins in the womb (black babies were more than twice as likely as white babies to be born at low birth weight and to mothers who received late or no prenatal care). Having survived birth, the developmental disparities start early: at nine months, black babies score lower on measures of cognitive development than white babies and at 24 months, the gap in cognitive development has more than tripled between black babies and white babies. On average, black children arrive their first day of school with lower levels of school readiness than white children.

When the Cradle to Prison and School to Prison pipelines converge, we see kids funneled into inadequate education facilities with less qualified teachers and high rates of out-of-school suspension (black students represent 46 percent of all students who received multiple out-of-school suspensions). The achievement gap widens each year and by eighth grade, 86 percent of black public school students cannot read at grade level and 87 percent cannot do math at grade level. What happens when these forces push black youth out of school? They drop out (64 percent of black students graduate high school on time) and find a hostile labor market (as of June 2012, almost one in three black youth age 16 to 24 was unemployed) and if living in a violent neighborhood, they will likely find themselves dodging bullets rather than applying to college. Shockingly, over 90 percent of firearm deaths of black children and teens in 2009 were homicides.

Even those kids that "make it", overcoming hardships and escaping the pipelines, can still suffer negative health outcomes as adults as a result of these experiences. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study is a groundbreaking study that showed a relationship between early exposure to trauma and negative health outcomes as an adult, including chronic diseases. What the ACE study suggests is that the cradle to prison pipeline has enormous costs to society, from the high costs of incarcerating black youth and adults to the inevitable burden on our health systems.

In a recent blog on this report, CDF founder Marian Wright Edelman does not mince words: "I hope this report will be a piercing siren call that wakes up our sleeping, impervious and self-consumed nation to the lurking dangers of epidemic child neglect, illiteracy, poverty and violence." Only a nation as wealthy as ours and gripped with indifference could hang back and watch this happen.

Read the reports. There is ample, credible information out there to warn us that our children are in crisis as never before. It should be enough to spark outrage or at minimum, halt the budget assault on education, food security and other programs designed to protect the poorest children. Marian Wright Edelman hits the nail on the head - the changes that need to happen will not come from Washington or state capitols, though resources and sound policy are critical.

Armed with these stats, we should make noise --- in our churches, schools, community and civic organizations demanding both national action and embracing collective responsibility to save our children. Our houses of worship should distribute this report and prophetic voices on behalf of the most vulnerable and marginalized children must rise from the pulpit. Community leaders and black parents must band together and demand a crisis level response, but also fully embrace their ability to protect their own children from these forces. Recognizing the havoc community violence wreaks on children, every locality grappling with epidemic levels of violence should make stemming violence a top priority. This is a generation of children with the dimmest life prospects ever. On one level, we should all be ashamed of ourselves, willing to soul search and ask, what more could I be doing to turn this tide?

(Photo from http://tagboston.org)

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