It seems natural D’Adre Cunningham ‘01 felt compelled to serve her community. Her grandmother was a nurse; her grandfather and brother were both police officers. And though she didn’t have lawyers in the family, she found years later that the law was her chance to answer the call to service.

Today, Cunningham is at the vanguard of the fight to dismantle what is often one of the criminal legal system’s most harmful practices. As resource attorney for the Washington Defender Association’s Incarcerated Parents Project (WDA IPP), she leads multifaceted efforts to end family separation through parental incarceration in Washington state.

“Children just do better when more people they care about are in their lives,” Cunningham says. “If people aren't maintaining that connection, children are just not supported. When you have a parent who provides emotional support — love, affection, nurture, involvement in the child's life — and then they're just not there, there are lot of adverse consequences to well-being.”

Of the 2.3 million people currently incarcerated in the United States, roughly half of all persons held in custody in state prisons report having a minor child. A 2018 study found an estimated one of every 12 American children under 18 has experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives, with communities of color being the most disproportionately impacted.

“Children just do better when more people they care about are in their lives.”

The effects on children can be devastating. Parental incarceration has well-documented negative outcomes for impacted children, ranging from depression and anxiety to guilt and withdrawal — all of which contribute to a cycle WDA IPP is trying to disrupt.

The organization’s scope of work is extensive. WDA IPP provides legal resources by way of case assistance, legal motions and briefs, expert referrals, and legal training to defenders, court participants and community members. Cunningham and colleagues also engage in collaborative policy action that has served as a model for other states, including work on national legislation.

Cunningham says this field can be as affirming as it is challenging.

“It is not for the faint of heart,” she says. “You’re sitting with folks at a moment when maybe the worst thing that’s ever going to happen to them is happening to them. And as an attorney, you want to help, but often the power to fix it is sitting somewhere else.”

Fighting for families

Cunningham began her post-law school career representing children and parents in King County Juvenile Court as a staff attorney in King County at The Defender Association. For the next 15 years, she served in various roles helping children and families navigate the criminal legal system, both directly and as a leader in the organization.

Cunningham says she saw a lot of herself in the children she was representing, and the work resonated with her. Along the way, the institutional challenges were only magnified when working directly with vulnerable individuals entangled in the system.

“What I was trying to do is help folks stay out of that system primarily because it seemed like it was being overused,” Cunningham says. “There were children and families who had no business being there, and while I’m not suggesting anyone belongs there, it was much harder when you’re dealing with children being separated from their families.

“This work just became such an important, passionate piece of what was going on in my professional career.”

“This work just became such an important, passionate piece of what was going on in my professional career.”

In 2017, Cunningham began her work at WDA IPP, which predicates its work on several core principles: No child should lose a parent because they have been accused of a crime; those who are incarcerated should be supported to maintain meaningful connections with their minor children; and the stigma and biases that manifest against justice- and child-welfare-system-involved parents and children must be dismantled.

Cunningham is also active on a number of other fronts concerning the treatment of people in women’s prisons, ameliorating conditions for those who are unable to be released from prison, among others.

When dealing with the complicated, massive world of parental incarceration, Cunningham reaffirms that disappointment is just part of the job; the system doesn’t lend itself to change easily. But for those who can keep coming back to the fight, it’s worth it.

“Lawyers have to be comfortable with not always getting what their clients want, watching pretty tough things take place and still be able to marshal up energy and enthusiasm the next day, the next minute,” Cunningham says. “I firmly believe the next generation of lawyers that come behind should feel empowered to fight for conditions that make it possible for lawyers to do this work.”

Learn more about the Washington Defender Association’s Incarcerated Parents Project.