"I didn't realize how devastating the experience has been until I became a little bit older, a little bit more mature," she said. "But it had just been affecting so many areas of my life."
Underwood, 46, said having a parent in jail or prison comes with a stigma that leaves many children uncomfortable speaking about the trauma. The consequence, she added, is that the children become "really a historically invisible population," she said.
There are about 5.1 million kids who have had a parent incarcerated in a U.S. jail or prison at some point during their childhood. Of the 2.3 million people behind bars in the U.S., about half a million of them are presumptively innocent, awaiting trial in local jails because they can't afford to pay cash bail.
In 2017, Underwood founded We Got Us Now, an advocacy group for the children of incarcerated parents, in part to deal with how a parents’ pretrial detention in a county jail, as opposed to a long-term sentence in a state or federal prison, can affect children in distinct ways. "It’s just a different experience, having a parent in the county jail versus in a state prison,” Underwood said.
Advocates challenging Dallas County’s misdemeanor cash bail system in a federal lawsuit are focused on the children of pretrial detainees too.
“This mass detention based on wealth has devastating consequences for Plaintiffs, for their families, and for the community. Pretrial detention of presumptively innocent human beings causes people to lose their jobs and shelter, interrupts vital medication cycles, and separates parents and children,” attorneys said in court filings.
Dallas County's legal team didn't respond to requests for comment.
"When you have parents detained, their children are also doing the time and paying the price." - Elizabeth Rossi, Civil Rights Corps
A growing body of research shows that incarcerating parents has serious, long-term consequences for their children.
"The effects [of incarceration] are generational, and they're psychological,” said Elizabeth Rossi, an attorney with the Civil Right Corps and a lead attorney for the detainees in the pending case.
A 2019 report by Texas Children’s Hospital found that incarceration drove depression, behavioral problems and poor academic performance for detainees' children. Previous research found that children of incarcerated people were twice as likely to develop depression as those with free parents.
These psychological hardships stem from kids’ exposure to multiple elements of the incarceration process. Witnessing their parent being arrested can generate post-traumatic stress symptoms; researchers have shown that non-contact visits are confusing and stressful for kids.
Having an incarcerated parent also increases kids’ chances of winding up behind bars themselves. Connecticut State University researchers found that children of incarcerated people were three times more likely to become involved with the criminal justice system than their peers with non-incarcerated parents.
The case has now been pending for nearly three years. In the meantime, the many parents amongst the nearly 4,000 pretrial detainees in Dallas County Jail at any given time have remained separate from their kids.
"When you have parents detained, their children are also doing the time and paying the price,” Rossi said.