For many of us, thinking about Valentine’s Day conjures childhood memories of making an assortment of handmade cards that eventually were posted on the refrigerator by Mom. Or maybe our parents bought us those miniature Valentine’s Day cards to give out to all our classmates.

Many of us are now parents reliving that experience with our own our kids today. But for the countless children entangled in the juvenile justice system, Valentine’s Day can be a time of unbearable loneliness with no family members on hand to share their love.

That’s why Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC), as part of our Let Kids Be Kids campaign, will “Stand in Love” with incarcerated children in Louisiana. We’re doing that by reaching out to community members and leaders in Louisiana and throughout the country to ask them to create valentines — some on video and some just like the ones we remember making in school — to send to kids who are incarcerated. Today, we’ll be delivering those messages of love to kids incarcerated in several Louisiana juvenile detention centers. 

While our efforts today will make a big difference to the children we touch, we’re only going to scratch the surface because the school-to-prison pipeline is filling the criminal justice system with kids, especially Black children. During the 2013-2014 school year, Black children comprised 43 percent of Louisiana’s public student body but comprised 64 percent of the state’s expulsions and 68 percent of its out-of-school suspensions. In the same year, the number of out-of-school suspensions in New Orleans was 46,625, which is more than the total number of students enrolled in the city’s public schools. That same year, more than 16,000 Louisiana students were expelled or suspended out of school before they reached sixth grade, including 1,100 kindergarteners and 239 children in state-funded pre-kindergarten, including pre-kindergartens in special ed. 

The pathway from suspension or expulsion into the juvenile justice system not only ruins kids’ lives; it also siphons critical resources out of public institutions that support the health and wellbeing of low-income children and families. Louisiana spends only $8,402 per child a year on public education but $105,928
 a year for every child it incarcerates. 

The money spent to incarcerate children could be used much more effectively on humane interventions to help children. The kids in the juvenile justice system need educational and vocational programs (including special education) within the facilities that can be tracked and shared between the detention center and schools to ensure that, upon release, reentry into school is more successful.

These kids need counseling services within the facilities to address mental health issues while detained and coordinated aftercare with community services upon reentry. Schools need to be prepared to deal with children who have been traumatized by incarceration.

While we have to do a better job for formerly incarcerated kids, we can’t stop there. Our schools also need resources to deal with all of the students who are grapple often insurmountable barriers to learning, including poverty, mental health issues, learning disabilities and the too-frequent deaths of their peers and family members. Until we equip schools and our communities with the resources to overcome these problems, our children will continue to pay the price — often behind bars.

We’re hoping that our efforts today will help raise awareness about all of the children who have been relegated to the criminal justice system. Our Valentine’s Day campaign is sending an important message to children who have been too-oft forgotten. But it’s also a wake-up call for adults across the country to Stand in Love with these kids everyday by demanding that policymakers spend more money on giving Black children and all children and communities the resources to be successful. 

It’s not too late for you to Stand in Love to show your support for these kids.  We are continuing to collect videos that will be compiled and used as a therapy tool throughout the year with kids in Louisiana’s youth prisons and detention facilities. Please consider creating your own video and posting it to the Stand in Love Facebook page.

Wish these children a happy Valentine’s Day and show them they’re loved and valued by their communities. Let’s let kids be kids.

Gina Womack is Executive Director, Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children


Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the school year of the amount of public school suspensions in Louisiana.