Paige Clausius-Parks is the organization’s new executive director. Morning host Luis Hernandez spoke with Clausius-Parks about key takeaways from the report, her goals for the organization, and some of the challenges facing young people today.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Luis Hernandez: Kids Count recently released its “Centering Youth Voice in Juvenile Justice Reform” [report], right?

Paige Clausius-Parks: Yes.

Hernandez: And this highlights the perspective of young people who've had contact with the juvenile justice system. You asked a focus group about their interaction with police, juvenile courts, hearing boards, the training school. Can you give me a basic, just synopsis of what this report is really telling us? You know, what is the perspective that kids have about the system?

Clausius-Parks: What we heard from young people in those focus groups is, there is a lot of confusion around why and how the court system works. We've heard from young people that they felt disconnected from really understanding and knowing what the attorneys are saying, what the judges are saying. We heard from parents also in those focus groups, that said they also felt disconnected and disempowered. And a lot of concerns from our young people that, although some of them had some positive people in their experiences, especially some young people talked about some of the staff at the Rhode Island Training School, and how many of those staff members do care about them. But on a systemic level, what this means for young people's outcomes afterwards – many young people talked about the impact of being incarcerated on their mental health. And then their outcomes afterward, on how difficult it is to get back and to, and have an actual system that is restorative.

Hernandez: Something interesting about this report that I saw that jumped out is, the impact – the current system as it is, the impact it has on their mental health. 

Clausius-Parks: Yes. 

Hernandez: What did they tell you?

Clausius-Parks: Well, they told us that being locked up in their room – as is required as a part of being incarcerated – for many young people, it made their mental health worse. And we heard from a parent that said that, her young person went in one way, her son went in one way, and came out with a lifetime sentence of PTSD. Right? That is not the goal of having our young people in any kind of restorative system. It's not restorative at all for many young people.

Hernandez: I mean, from an outsider's perspective, but clarify for me – it sounds almost like, when they engage with authority, especially law, law enforcement of any kind or the system as we've been calling it, that it just starts to send them in a certain direction. Does that mean that we don't, we shouldn't put them through that system? Or does the system need to change?

Clausius-Parks: Well, our systems need to change. Absolutely. And we also need to look at our schools and our school climate. So schools that have a positive school climate, where there’s restorative justice practices in place. So if a student, you know, has an incident in school, the teachers can identify any kind of trauma that may be impacting a student or any kind of issue that a student has in their life, and are able to refer them to any type of social, emotional, or mental health supports – those are ways that we can interact and prevent students from having increased disciplinary action, which normally is usually an indication that something else is going on, that a student needs more help. If we can engage earlier in schools, we empower schools to be able to recognize that behavior, giving them the resources that they need to be able to refer students, and also empowering our school administrators with what they need and equip them with what they need to be able to handle those behaviors without the use of law enforcement, our schools are better off, our kids are better off, and it improves relationships between students and the school staff.

Hernandez: You mentioned after-school activities. What is that, like, sports, band? What is it that kids are asking for?

Clausius-Parks: So kids are asking for all of that. So currently, in Rhode Island, we have just over 59,000 kids who would be engaged in an after-school or out-of-school time program, but don't have access to them because of price, transportation. There’s many issues. And we know that higher-income families spend almost seven times more money on getting their students and their kids in after-school time programs than low-income students, because they’re just, they're expensive. We have a lack of access to high-quality, affordable, out-of-school time after-school programs. So our young people, they want to be engaged. They don't want to sit around, you know, bored, not doing anything. They want to be engaged. They want to do sports. They want to do STEM activities. They want to be mentored by adults who care about them, who look like them, that have similar experiences to them, that can mentor them through life. They want to be involved in civics and in youth empowerment work. They want to do music, band, jump, run, play, all those things at all ages. Our young people want to be able to do that. 

Hernandez: What are we doing or not doing as a community to help our kids? Why are schools struggling? Why are kids struggling? What are we missing here? What are we not doing right?

Clausius-Parks: That is a really big question. That is a very big question. There are so many reasons why we're struggling, why our kids are struggling in our schools, and all these different issues interact with each other. I think how we got into this place really stems from systemic racism. And as our population of students of color have increased, as people of color have been able to access some of our public programs, we start to see those public programs then become either disinvested, or questions around the validity or the quality of those programs. And our kids suffer for it. And all kids suffer for it. Because all kids need to be able to have access to a high-quality education, regardless of race, or income status, or neighborhood, or disability status. And all of our kids need, we need that as a state. However, if we don't confront and look at the systemic, racist policies that have brought us to this place, we will miss opportunities to fix them. And we really need to have an equity-focused agenda and strategy to improve our policies, so that all kids – especially our students of color, which are becoming a larger percentage of public education students – if we can't get it right for those kids, we're not going to get it right for our entire school system. So we need to begin with our students of color, looking at what do they need, and how can we make sure there are investments, supports and resources to be able to help them get the opportunities that they need to succeed?

Hernandez: Paige, it’s been a pleasure. I really appreciate it. Thank you so much.

Clausius-Parks: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.