A pair of laws recently enacted in Illinois were designed to take into account how children are affected by their parents' incarceration and to find ways to address their needs.
As a young child, Bella BAHHS believed her mother and father were away at college. That’s how her family explained their absence. Once, she came home as a kindergartner and sobbed in her grandmother’s arms because there had been a college fair. She said she didn’t ever want to ever go to college because she didn’t want to leave her grandmother the way her parents had left her.
“She was telling me that I could go to college and it will be a different experience and she promises me that, but she still didn't tell me that our parents weren't actually in college, that they were in prison. I didn't find out that my mother was in prison until she got home, I was maybe around seven years old, eight years old when she had to set me down and explain to me, there's no school that could have ever kept her away from me; she was gone because she had to be gone,’” BAHHS, now 26, says.
Her parents, who were imprisoned on drug conspiracy charges, sent her letters. She wrote back, hoping to impress them with a youngster’s writing skills. So, Bella and Nell Chambers had a relationship, but it wasn’t a mother-daughter bond. She had that with her grandmother, who she called mom.
“Now, I'm learning a lot about early childhood development and how important it is to have skin-to-skin contact with the mother-daughter and how important it is,” said BAHHS, who lives in Chicago. “You know that early in those first few years of developing a relationship, and I didn't have it.”
BAHHS is a spoken word artist who directs the Sister Survivor Network, which supports black women whose lives have been affected by the criminal justice system. Her chosen last name is an acronym for Black Ancestors Here Healing Society.
For someone who has had an incarcerated parent, the odds of reaching adulthood unscathed are slim. These children are more likely than the general public to have mental and physical health problems, drug use history and those issues are worsened if the child also has experience with the juvenile justice system. If the parent has been to prison or jail, there‘s a strong chance the child will, too.
The situation didn’t go unnoticed by the state legislature, which adopted a pair of laws last year aimed at addressing the impacts of incarceration on children.
One law that just took effect will require the court to take into consideration what incarceration will mean for children of the defendant -- or other family members needing care.
“We could take some compassion and not have that child born in prison – or not have that child separated from the parent,” said Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago. “I think it’s important that we contemplate not just the impact on the defendant, but on the family. I just think that’s good policy.’’
Meanwhile, Rep. Delia Ramirez, D-Chicago, sponsored another law that creates a task force to address the needs of children of the incarcerated.
“The task force wants to spend some time really looking at the current state and impact of children whose parents are incarcerated, and how we can identify recommendations to bring to the General Assembly that really put child welfare at the forefront,” said Ramirez.
The state task force is basing its research on eight guiding principles, such as the fact that children need to be protected from unnecessary trauma during a parent’s arrest to ensure a lifelong relationship between parent and child when possible, she said.
Deanne Benos is a former assistant director of IDOC and co-founder of the Women’s Justice Institute, a research and advocacy group
Benos called passage of the new laws and the approval of Gov. J.B. Pritzker “pretty incredible and hopeful moments.”
Alexis Mansfield is at the Women’s Justice Institute, too, and is a member of the state task force. She drafted the legislation that Ramirez sponsored. She says Illinois is only the second state after Oregon to have something like a bill of rights for the children of the incarcerated.
“When someone's incarcerated, they don't have many rights, but they have some: There is not supposed to be cruel and unusual treatment. So they need to be fed, they need to be given medical care…. But for their children who are sharing that same sentence as their parents, they do not have any guaranteed rights.”
The seed of the new laws was born out of an Women’s Justice Institute effort in partnership with Cabrini Green Legal Aid, Benos said.
There are 800,000 women imprisoned in the United States, and 80% of them in Illinois and the nation as a whole are mothers, she said. As of the end of September, there were more than 39,000 prisoners in Illinois Department of Corrections and they claimed to have just over 66,000 children among them.
Benos said she was moved by the women she met when she was at the Corrections department.
“Where does justice live? Many would argue that it certainly doesn't live in a prison cell when you really can see the trajectories of these women and that an estimated 98% of them are coming to prison with histories of sexual abuse and domestic violence behind them in their wake. And you know abuse histories like that lead to health issues, mental health issues, trauma, substance abuse and a lot of things that escalate into the condition of crime, particularly drug and property crimes,’’ she said.
“It causes you to really take pause, and consider why are we doing this? Isn’t there a better way to address issues of poverty and addiction and trauma and substance abuse than cement blocks and bars?’’
Colette Payne, a member of the state taskforce and policy assistant at Cabrini Green Legal Aid, said she knows how poverty can lead people to crime. “Trauma looks different for everyone and for me, living in poverty, being evicted a few times - that was traumatic for me and I didn't know how to handle it, and I turned to drugs.’’ For her, that was heroin and cocaine.
“I would say folks that are incarcerated, they're trying to survive. I'm trying to survive poverty.”
Her convictions were what she calls low-level offenses, such as forgery. “It was all fighting to survive and trying to take care of my children during that time.’’ She was released from prison in 2012 and her three sons are grown now.
Risks faced by children of the incarcerated are at the heart of Dr. Nia Heard-Garris’ studies. She is a pediatrician and researcher at Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. She led a study that showed the odds of problems emerging for inmates’ children are exacerbated when the youths themselves are involved in the juvenile justice system.
Her research illuminates this: A father’s absence can be more detrimental than a mother’s.
“if I had to guess, i would have put all my money on the mothers … but, in fact we found that when fathers go away, young adults are more likely to use substances -- smoke cigarettes, problems with alcohol, problems with drug abuse, use of intravenous illicit drugs, and also other drugs and we didn't really see that same substance-use history, for those that only have their mothers go away. I think inherently we know that children do need loving and supportive caregivers. I just had no idea the strong impact of the role of the father.“
But a mother’s role is important in a different way, Benos said. “Overwhelmingly, when you look at the incarceration impact on children, it's harmful whether it's a mother or father, but it's a profound impact when you're considering moms are the caretakers.“
Heather Canuel, a Bloomington hair salon owner, was first imprisoned for driving on a revoked license and gave birth to her daughter in 2003 while chained to a prison bed. She says the trauma caused a downward sprial that led her to sell drugs. She was sent to prison again for a drug-related crime — this time staying until 2015.
Her daughter was primarily raised by Canuel’s grandmother. Now 15, Patience struggles some. Until her mother’s release, she had been an A student and who played volleyball and basketball. But having her mother home, threw her off balance somewhat.
“She still doesn't want me to hug her sometimes, where the probably normal 15-year-old wouldn't care,’’ Canuel said. “But whereas a normal mother-daughter relationship, there is hugging, there is touch. That is something that she has always shied away from because we never were able to have that emotional bonding.”
A start to improving the situation for parents and children is make visiting less traumatic for both parent and child, Mansfield said. “But the main thing we can do is to promote de-carceration. If we stop putting people in jail in prison, then we will have families who are not broken apart by the system.”