The New York Times yesterday devoted an entire section to the Changing American Family. Profiles discussed the blended families, nothing new there as we knew about them in the 70s, they were the Brady Bunch; Gay Parents, Single Parents,Adoption, Career Jugglers, Co-habitators and two ones of my particular interest - Parents Behind Bars and Electing a Family.
The story of those families who have to bond and connect when one parent is behind bars is the new dichotomy. We have such a large and ever increasing prison population thanks to the ever growing Police State, we are not just supporting one individual through incarceration we are also supporting that individuals family. So much for the entitlement generation and their tough on crime, dump the safety nets. When you look again at costs per difference, it is quite staggering.
The essay below tells one such story. But remember be thankful that you and your family are safe this Thanksgiving.
Bonding From Behind Bars
The children of more than a million inmates are left to cope as best they can.
One variant of the modern American family — sadly characteristic, if often ignored — is the family struggling with the impact of an incarcerated parent. Largely as a result of harsh drug laws and mandatory minimum sentences, the nation’s prison population has almost quadrupled over the past 30 years, according to a 2010 Pew Charitable Trusts study.
Today the United States is the world’s leading jailer by far, housing more of its citizens behind bars than the top 35 European countries combined. And of the estimated 2.3 million inmates serving time, more than half are parents of children under age 18. That translates into 2.7 million affected children nationwide, or one of every 28, up from one in 125 in 1990.
Some groups have been hit much harder than others. “African-American children living in lower-income, low-education neighborhoods are seven and a half times more likely than white kids to experience the incarceration of a parent,” said Julie Poehlmann, professor of human development and family studies at the University of Wisconsin. “And by age 14, more than half of these kids with a low-education parent will have an imprisoned parent.”
Families are left to cope as best they can, not only with the deafening absence, the economic hardship, the grief and loneliness that separation from a loved one can bring, but also with the stigma that accompanies a criminal conviction, the feelings of humiliation, debasement and failure.
It’s one thing if your father is taken away by disease or divorce; it’s another if he’s taken away in handcuffs. Studies have shown that even accounting for factors like poverty, the children of incarcerated parents are at heightened risk of serious behavioral problems, of doing poorly in school or dropping out, of substance misuse, of getting in trouble with the law and starting the cycle anew.
In a telling sign, “Sesame Street” recently introduced a Muppet named Alex, who looks as glum as Eeyore and is ashamed to admit why only his mother shows up at school events: Dad is in prison. The show offers an online tool kit for children and their caregivers, “Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration,” with a coloring book, cutout mobile and “how am I feeling?” cards (angry, upset, sad).
“We know a lot of kids who need help understanding what is happening with their parents, and caregivers who need to know how to talk about it,” said Dr. Poehlmann, who helped develop the tool kit.
Nearly half the caregivers never talk about the imprisoned parent, while another third simply lie, Dr. Poehlmann said. “They don’t have the words, they don’t know what the kids will understand,” she said. “But kids have big ears, and if no one talks about it directly, the kids will feel they should keep it secret.”
Caregivers are also often hesitant to take children to visit incarcerated parents, either out of fear the visit will be traumatic, or because the prison is usually in a remote rural area hours from public transportation.
Whatever the reason, a vast majority of prisoners get no visits, from their children or anybody else, Dr. Poehlmann said, “and they feel very sad about that.”
During several recent visits to a men’s low-security federal prison in rural New Jersey, the joy, pain and unsettling ordinariness of family time, penitentiary style, were on fluorescent-lit display.
Women brought babies, children, teenagers and bags of quarters for the vending machines. Fathers wearing prison khakis and work boots were required to stay seated in their molded plastic chairs, but as family members filed in, the men’s Humpty Dumpty grins threatened to split their faces.
Older children settled into seats beside their fathers, while younger ones played at kiddie tables in the corner. Everybody ate chips, microwaved sandwiches, bags of M&Ms. The prison photographer snapped family portraits in front of fake backdrops of palm trees and sunsets.
One day at the end of visiting hours, as family members lined up to await escorted passage through multiple locked doors, a 10-year-old boy in a striped polo shirt stood next to his mother, crying and crying. She pulled him close, but the boy didn’t stop. He was weeping his quiet ocean of loss and would give no thought to the shore.
In interviews, conducted in person and through an intermediary, the prisoners, too, teared up when they talked about their children, and the great difficulty they had maintaining bonds through sentences long enough to turn those children into adults.
All are nonviolent offenders, as are about two-thirds of prisoners over all. They spoke on condition that only their first names be used.
Sing, a tall, slim man in his early 40s, has been in prison for 15 years on drug charges, with two years to go. His son and daughter are now 17 and 23, but he has been “adamant” about staying involved in their lives — through letters, phone calls and emails.
“They are doing very well,” he said. “They have no criminal problems.”
Yet because they live in Florida, 1,000 miles away, Sing hasn’t seen them in five years. He and other inmates expressed frustration at how often the Bureau of Prisons flouted its official policy of trying to house inmates in facilities within 500 miles of their families. The authorities are supposed to do as much as possible to keep families together, Sing said bitterly, “but they do more to keep families apart.”
Other inmates said that no matter where it was, prison had a way of corroding emotional ties to the outside world. Jon, who is 55 and three years into a five-year sentence, scoffed when he first arrived and a seasoned inmate told him he’d soon stop caring about the everyday concerns of the people he left behind, including those of his only child, a teenage girl.
The veteran, Jon sighed, was right. “I have to make a special effort now to stay emotionally connected with my daughter and to keep up with her daily experiences,” he said. “It’s hard for me to do. She’ll start talking about her friends and I’ll have no idea who they are.”
Perseverance helps. “My top priority is to stay relevant in my kids’ lives,” said Rob, an athletic 46-year-old who has been in prison four years and has three teenage daughters. “I put them first as much as I can.”
He calls each girl once a week and prepares conversation notes ahead of time. He sends gifts he’s drawn or crocheted. They have a family book club. His daughters seem to be doing well: One is at Bryn Mawr College, and another is at Tabor Academy, a highly competitive prep school. But with nine years of hard time yet to go, who knows if all the threads will hold?
The next essay is the found family. I say this Thanksgiving if I am not one of the above and that is dependant upon next week, I welcome finding a family that I can adopt and which to nuture and belong. Being alone is not lonely, that is not something I have ever suffered, but what it means in a culture and socieity is that when you are alone you are suspect. And we all know what that means to be a suspect, read above..
Simply Deciding to Be Related
Circumstances can lead to friendships becoming something more.
The night Beki Reese’s 22-year-old son, Caleb, went into a coma, three months before he would die of lung cancer, she asked his best friend, “Matt, are we going to lose you too, when this is all over?”
After meeting at a heavy metal concert in 2001, Matthew Tanksley, now 33, became the big brother Caleb never had. When Caleb got sick, Matt visited him in the hospital almost daily, and briefly took on the role of nurse during a memorable trip to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. But he was also there for Ms. Reese, of Costa Mesa, Calif., who says she depended on him for emotional support as her son’s illness progressed.
“Through that ordeal, that nine-month period, I became like a full-fledged member of the family,” Mr. Tanksley said. “We were having family dinners together, we were going out to eat, we were talking to each other every day on the phone. Hard times build bonds, and that definitely happened.”
Mr. Tanksley’s own mother had died when he was 13, so he welcomed the Reese clan’s embrace. Seven years later, he and Caleb’s mother remain close: She calls him her son, and he introduces her as “Mom.”
Relationships like these — independent of biology but closer and more enduring than friendship — have been documented in various cultures throughout history. In the United States, they are particularly common within African-American and immigrant communities, as well as gay and lesbian social networks. Anthropologists have traditionally used the term “fictive kin” to separate such relationships from “true” kinship based on blood or law, but many researchers have recently pushed back against that distinction, arguing that self-constructed families are no less real or meaningful than conventional ones.
“They see these folks as family, and so I’m going to honor that,” said Dawn O. Braithwaite, head of communication studies at the University of Nebraska. “We want to think about it more as a continuum from friendship to family, and I don’t know when the bell rings. But definitely, for these people, nobody had a doubt that it was a family to them.”
Dr. Braithwaite and her colleagues have termed such families “voluntary kin.” For a study published in 2010, they interviewed 110 people in such relationships; they found that for some people, voluntary kinship filled a void left by death or estrangement from biological family, while for others the relationships were supplemental or temporary.
One thing that distinguishes these relationships from friendship, Dr. Braithwaite said, is that they often become central to one’s identity. And many serve important life functions: They may provide a sense of belonging, as well as financial and emotional relief.
Mr. Tanksley’s own family expanded three years ago, when he married Caleb Reese’s former girlfriend, Shannon. Their two children call Ms. Reese “Nana.” — Roni Jacobson
Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family, whomever they belong, found or otherwise.