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Awards bolster doctoral student’s work on children of incarcerated parents

young woman with glasses

Erin McCauley

Erin McCauley came by her interest in criminal justice research through first-hand experience, first as an advocate for youth of color involved in the criminal justice system, and then as a high school teacher for youth with behavioral issues.

These experiences eventually led McCauley to pursue a doctorate degree at Cornell in sociology and policy analysis and management, where she is studying how having incarcerated parents affects children in school settings. This year, she received two prestigious awards that will fund her dissertation – one from the National Science Foundation and another from the Fahs-Beck Fund for Research and Experimentation.

“My research will explore how parental incarceration stigma effects teacher’s assessments of student work and competency and how teachers respond to various behavioral issues,” McCauley explained.

“Overall, my dissertation research hopes to understand the ways in which parental incarceration stigma shapes the experiences and trajectories of students in schools in an effort to better understand the intergenerational implications of incarceration on inequality,” she said.

Chris Wildeman, the director of the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research and McCauley’s thesis advisor, said McCauley’s work is truly ground-breaking.

“Erin’s dissertation, which focuses on how parental incarceration shapes children’s educational experiences, is unique in its ability to simultaneously garner funding from organizations most interested in basic science and those most interested in translational work that will improve society,” he said. “This is truly a testament to how exceptional a scholar Erin is and to how wonderful her work is.”

McCauley first became interested of how incarceration affects youth in school volunteering in the juvenile justice system as an undergraduate at the University of Oregon. “I was disheartened by the assumptions that teachers sometimes held of students who were involved in the juvenile justice system and their families, and this led me to be interested in teaching.”

As a high school teacher, she saw first-hand facing students with incarcerated parents. “The intergenerational consequences of incarceration on their education was readily apparent,” she said.

McCauley went on to earn a master’s degree in education and community development and action from Vanderbilt University before coming to Cornell. She will begin recruiting participants for her dissertation project in the spring.

“I hope that this research helps us understand the experiences of children of incarcerated parents in schools, examine how the disadvantage we see in their education occurs, and hopefully use this understanding to inform teacher education programs,” she said. “While criminal justice reform has recently been a well discussed topic of conversation more broadly, the intergenerational consequences of incarceration are still largely overlooked in public debate. As a result, we’re missing a potential contributor to persistent racial and class inequality in the United States.”