“Andrea,” a 10-year-old girl with a round face, covers her right eye with her hand as if she is hiding. Her cheeks become flushed. She says the other children tease her, saying, “Your mama this or your mama that.”
“Some of them know and some of them don’t,” she says of the fact that her mother’s in prison. But even if they don’t know, Andrea says, when they mention her mom, it stings inside.
At these moments, she often starts to cry and the teacher sends her to the hall to calm down. “I just miss her,” Andrea says softly.
Like Andrea, many children with a parent in prison carry to school with them shame and longing. Experts agree that in a myriad of ways these emotions—and the rise of anger that sometimes comes with them—can overshadow a child’s ability to learn.
As children with parents in prison enter the forefront of public attention, courts, prisons and even police departments are giving these children more consideration, from how best to interact with them during a parent’s arrest to factoring in a child’s needs at their parent’s sentencing. Schools have yet to step up, say advocates, despite the considerable amount of time children spend there and the expectation that they perform academically.
Public school officials still do not know how prevalent this has become, says Annetta Wilson, executive director of Sankofa Safe Child Initiative, a child welfare agency in North Lawndale. The prison population exploded in the aftermath of get-tough drug laws in the 1980s. One researcher estimates that 2 percent of CPS students had mothers in prison during the 11 years between 1990 and 2001. Among African-American children, the estimate rises to 4 percent. And if jail time were factored in, these figures would be higher still.
“People are just beginning to ask, what needs to happen next?” Wilson says.
Families are emotionally and financially stressed when a parent goes to prison, Wilson notes. And if a child hasn’t eaten or slept well, or has no decent clothes, it is difficult for them to do well in class.
“If you don’t look at those kids and figure out how to get them ready to learn, then you’ve lost another generation,” she says.
Child advocates like Ranjana Bhargava of Lutheran Social Services of Illinois say that at the very least, principals, teachers and school social workers in Chicago Public Schools need to be more aware of the issue, know how to be sensitive to children’s feelings and have an arsenal of referrals where children can go for counseling and support. (A California program that works with children whose parents are in prison found the children most wanted teachers and school social workers to be conscious of their needs.) They also see a need for schools to have programs, such as mentoring and group therapy, so children can find friends in similar predicaments and role models.
Yet schools have no way to determine which students are in this predicament. Families tend to keep a parent’s imprisonment hush-hush, children don’t say anything to teachers, and the situation itself can be volatile, as a person can go into or get out of jail or prison overnight.
“Ideally, everyone would feel comfortable telling the social worker, and I think most do,” says Nancy Quintana, CPS manager of school social workers. “But every school has a different climate, and some worry about the information getting in the wrong hands so they stay quiet.”
Catalyst Chicago interviewed several families dealing with parental imprisonment about their experiences at home and in the school system. These are three of their stories.
Repeating 3rd grade, seized by crying spells
Andrea is confused about how long her mom has been in prison this time. She hadn’t seen her in a while, so a few weeks ago, she traveled with her grandmother for three hours by car to Lincoln Correctional Center.
But her grandmother is not her legal guardian, and Andrea didn’t have a notarized letter from her paternal grandfather who is. The prison would not let Andrea in.
“I had to sit in the car,” she says.
Later, Randle Booker, Andrea’s grandfather, fills in his granddaughter’s fuzzy knowledge about her mother’s time in prison. She’s been in prison twice, he says, the most recent stint being the current two-year sentence she’s serving for prostitution. She will likely be paroled in a few months.
She’s been in jail more frequently, and, when she’s not locked up, she’s often absent from Andrea’s life, he says. “Her mom went to prison when she was 5 and never came back,” Booker says.
Andrea doesn’t know what her mother was convicted for this time, but reveals that she’s been struggling with drug addiction. “She gets high,” Andrea says. “I think that’s why.”
Andrea prays that once her mom gets out of prison, she will move far away from the West Englewood block where they currently reside, down the street from her public elementary school and amid round-the-clock drug and gang activity. Moving away will make it easier for her mother to get treatment and get well enough to take her and her younger siblings to live with her, Andrea hopes.
But there are signs that her mother is not ready to make this move. Recently, she wrote a letter to Andrea’s father saying that when she was released from prison, she planned to marry the drug dealer boyfriend who got her in trouble.
“I don’t want her to do that,” says Andrea, sounding older than her age. “She needs to be on her own and get herself together.”
On top of Andrea’s frustration over her mother, her father recently resurfaced after being released from prison. He’s also got problems with drugs, and has already had run-ins with Andrea and her 8-year-old sister and 5-year-old brother—a common problem ex-offenders have after being absent for awhile and then trying to re-assert their authority.
Booker is not sure exactly how Andrea’s parents’ troubles with the law have affected her in school. But she is currently repeating 3rd grade, a situation that Andrea and Booker chalk up to her not doing well on standardized tests rather than her mother’s and father’s imprisonment. “I don’t want to put something on it that is not there,” Booker says.
Still, he worries about his granddaughter’s emotional state. She doesn’t get into fights or act out in class, but she has crying spells and often seems anxious. She needs help, but Booker admits he doesn’t know what would help her. “Counseling,” he says. “Maybe mentoring.”
Booker told teachers and other school staff that Andrea’s mother was in prison, and says he counts on them to help support her. One of Andrea’s 3rd-grade teachers reached out, took her and her siblings out to eat, and then passed along a home phone number Andrea could call when she needed to talk.
No one else at the school has paid any particular attention to Andrea, says Booker, who was retired until he got custody of the three children and has since begun working two shifts as a security guard to take care of them.
The principal at Andrea’s school declined to be interviewed for this story.
Youth Guidance, a social service agency that runs Teen Reach, an onsite afterschool program that Andrea attends, provides some outreach. Andrea smiles when she talks about an African dance class she takes.
But youth development specialist K.J. Walker says there’s only so much they can do. She believes the school needs more counselors, maybe one for every grade. Now, she says, there are far too many children experiencing problems who are not getting enough attention or support from school staff.
Fighting in class, feeling left behind
Mary Cantore is a regular at her grandson’s school. She says she’s often there to respond to calls about something he did wrong. He’s not violent, Cantore says, but he does get into fights or purposely disobey the teacher.
She thinks he is trying to let people know that he is hurting.
When “Todd” was barely two weeks old, Cantore explains, his father left one afternoon and was supposed to return by evening to take pictures with his newborn son. Instead, he was arrested on murder charges.
Cantore’s son, George, was a lookout during a drug deal that went bad. “He was in the car and saw a flash of light,” she says. “They said that because he didn’t go home and call the police, he was culpable.”
With Todd’s father behind bars, Todd’s mother, who was still a teenager at the time, immediately took off. Officials called Cantore and asked her to take in Todd.
At the time, Cantore was a single mother with five teenagers at home, working double shifts to support the family. A petite woman, Cantore says she was an emotional mess as she watched her oldest son get sentenced to 55 years in prison. “It is my son, you know. I still love him.”
She vividly remembers sitting her two daughters and three sons down and asking them if they would help care for Todd. “They cried and said, ‘This is Georgie’s boy,'” she recalls. “We had to do it.”
The children took turns rocking the crying baby at night, feeding him, playing with him and waking up at 4 a.m. to get him to daycare before school. But as the teenagers grew up, they each went away to college. And each time Todd was devastated.
“Especially when my daughters left, he grabbed onto their legs and wouldn’t let go,” she says. “He turned so red and was so upset, we had to give him Tylenol to calm down.”
Eventually, Cantore and Todd were the only ones left in the airy second-floor Brighten Park apartment. In the immaculate apartment, poster-sized pictures of the girls in Quinceañera white dresses and the boys in graduation gowns adorn Cantore’s walls.
Cantore makes sure Todd, now 8, has a relationship with his father. Ever since George was transferred a year ago from a downstate prison to Stateville in Joliet, Cantore has taken Todd there weekly to visit him. And the father and son, who are spitting images of each other, talk on the phone regularly.
Todd’s mother, a drug addict, remains out of the picture, says Cantore. Recently, she called about picking up Todd to take pictures with her newborn baby. Todd got a haircut and dressed up. He waited. But his mother never showed up.
“We just went out and went shopping,” says Cantore, running her hand through Todd’s hair. “Didn’t we?”
At school, teachers do not understand the issues that Todd is dealing with, Cantore says. “I love him to death, but I am not mom or dad,” she says. “The way he sees it, everyone left him and it is his fault.”
Despite being stretched for cash—Cantore is retired and gets no government assistance to raise Todd—she pays for a therapist for him. The school never offered any counseling, and Todd desparately needed help, Cantore says.
“I don’t even think they have a counselor,” she says. “I know they have a disciplinarian, but I don’t know about a counselor.”
Heading back to school
Leaving children with parents in prison to fend for themselves can have grim consequences. Research has shown that many of these children drop out of school, and some 70 percent of them eventually follow in their parents’ footsteps and wind up in prison themselves.
By the time these children get to high school, they have disconnected from school and schools have little connection to them, says Charles Tabb, a case manager for Habilitative Systems Inc., a company contracted by CPS to track down chronic truants in Lawndale.
He proves his point by noting that schools do not have correct addresses or names of guardians for 40 percent of the truants he is asked to find.
When he eventually figures out what is going on with the family, often parental incarceration is an issue, Tabb says. “To get this student back, we have to work miracles,” he says.
Sometimes, when truants are found, a parent who was previously imprisoned has come back, says Albert Sharp, program manager of Habilitative Systems. But even when the incarceration took place years before—when the teenagers were still children, for instance—the family never recovered.
One young woman, “Delila,” says that as a kindergartener, she did not know that her father was in prison. He was just gone. She was told that he went to Job Corps and only years later did she learn the truth.
For a while after prison, Delila says her parents tried to make the family work.
But eventually, in Delila’s freshman year of high school, her mom and dad broke up for good. “My dad started hanging out on the street all night,” she says. “My mom didn’t want him back.”
With her parent’s attention elsewhere, Delila says she started hanging out instead of going to school. She’d get into fights and into relationships with the wrong people.
Now, at 17, she has minimal high school credits, has spent time in the juvenile detention center and has a two-month-old baby. Sitting in a wood chair in an otherwise empty apartment on a mid-winter morning, she says she wants to go back to school.
“I am tired of being in the house,” she says.
Sharp suspects the first break in Delila’s family happened when her father went to prison, leaving her mother to carry the weight alone. Delila’s rage might stem from feeling abandoned when she was a young child, he asserts.
“No one looks deeper at where problems start,” Sharp says. “When did the stress in the family start? Did the family ever heal? Until we do that, this is what we are going to get. And it is going to be hard for [Delila.]”
Delila, listening to Sharp, rocks her small baby and looks out the window at the dreary day.
For information about the families connection program at Lutheran Social Services, call Pat Davis at (312) 567-9224.
Contact Sarah Karp, at (312) 673-3882 or firstname.lastname@example.org.