Hitting The Wall

Maxine Johnson’s first day in prison in 2005 remains seared in her memory. She remembers the shackles on her legs binding her to another prisoner and the guards barking commands at inmates during the intake process.

But mostly she remembers her fear of the unexpected as she began her three-year stint and her visceral anxiety about the four grandchildren for whom she was the legal guardian. The grandchildren, ranging from 11 to 17 years old, had gone back to live with their mother, Johnson’s daughter. She had a gambling addiction, and Johnson didn’t think she could handle the responsibility. “It was horrible,” Johnson says about the first day. “I was worried about my grandchildren.”

Johnson did not hear about any services for her grandchildren that day or during the nine weeks she was in the intake unit. Not until a year later, in fact, did she learn about transportation services provided by Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, and that was by word of mouth from other prisoners.

That could be different now, as several pieces of legislation addressing the needs of children with incarcerated parents have been introduced, and, in one case, have been passed unanimously by both chambers of the Illinois General Assembly. These bills, along with an attempt to hold meetings with police departments across the state about how to handle arrests of adults when their parents are present, indicate to some that the concerns of these children have moved to the political mainstream from the domain of a dedicated band of service providers, caregivers, church members and corrections officials.

But celebrations hailing a dramatic change in the experience of children with incarcerated parents and their parents are premature. The bill, which only needs Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s signature to become law, may be stymied–”not because of a lack of consensus about its importance, but to ongoing constitutional and procedural squabbling among Blagojevich, Senate President Emil Jones and House Speaker Michael Madigan. The other bill was still in committee at the House session’s scheduled end in late May. And the planning between Lutheran Social Services of Illinois and the police was in the early stages.

“It’s gotten to be a very contentions and elaborate game where good public policy seems to be low on goals of what we’re trying to do,” said Kent Redfield, professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “It’s very frustrating to the people who are trying to make good public policy and it’s frustrating for the general public seeing constant bickering, name calling and real immobilization.

“Everything has become frozen as we’ve staked out all our battle positions,” Redfield said.

Introduced as Senate Bill 2879 by Sen. Kwame Raoul, the bill had several key points. It called for the state’s human services and corrections departments to work cooperatively with community organizations and service providers to identify local providers of services and to develop informational materials for families and children of incarcerated parents.

According to the bill, the materials would inform children and families of incarcerated parents about available social services like mentoring and family counseling programs. Designed to “reduce stigma and to provide support for children of incarcerated parents,” the materials would provide telephone and Internet contacts for the children’s caregivers.

In addition, the corrections department would provide the information to inmates in a sealed envelope during orientation, and pay for postage to send the materials to the children’s caregiver.

“The impetus for the bill is –¦ the fact that in many cases children follow the same pattern that led their parents to be incarcerated,’ Raoul said. “This is an effort to break the cycle.”

In its March/April 2007 issue, the Reporter identified gaps in prisoners’ awareness of available services such as counseling as one of several barriers to their children’s accessing services.

In March 2008, the bill picked up eight co-sponsors, including William Delgado, Jacqueline Collins and A.J. Wilhelmi, and, on April 17, passed by a unanimous 55-0 vote.

The bill made similar progress in the House, where Rep. Constance A. “Connie” Howard was the chief sponsor in addition to close to a dozen co-sponsors. It sailed through the Human Services Committee and passed on May 21 by a 114-0 vote.

According to Raoul, the bill, if passed, would cost the state between $5,000 and $10,000.

Blagojevich spokesman David Rudduck said the governor would consider the bill, but, before reaching his desk, the legislators have to resolve the placement of a “rulemaking authority” amendment on the bill by the Human Services Committee.

The amendment, which eliminates Blagojevich’s ability to change the substance of a bill, has been placed, on Madigan’s instruction, on hundreds of pieces of legislation since January.

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said the measure is necessary because Blagojevich violated the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branch last year in his efforts to pass a health care bill and disregarded a ruling about the issue by the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules.

Brown said Blagojevich’s action created a constitutional crisis. He acknowledged that the amendments have had the effect of slowing down legislation, but said it was a necessary price to pay for preserving the political process.

“To ignore that behavior, you might as well cede all authority to the executive branch,” Brown said. “The integrity of the process is as important as the actual piece of legislation.” Brown added that news accounts portraying disagreements between Madigan and Blagojevich as personal, rather than substantive, were inaccurate.

Jones’ spokeswoman Cindy Davidsmeyer said the current legislative process is acceptable and does not need improvement. This attitude has led Jones to instruct Democratic members to file non-concurrence motions that would eliminate the rulemaking amendments. “We believe that we have a good [legislative] process in place,” Davidsmeyer said. “We don’t believe in the need to amend this legislation with a competing process.”

In the case of the legislation, rather than going to Blagojevich, Raoul’s non-concurrence order meant that legislation had not reached Blagojevich’s desk.

Redfield of the University of Illinois at Springfield said the constitutional dispute is a significant one but should not take precedence over progressive legislation.

There is a constitutional principle of what is legislative authority and what is executive authority,’ he said. “[But] we’ve been severely limited in our ability to address problems because everything has become secondary to the power struggle.”

Another piece of legislation that has not reached Blagojevich’s desk is a piece of legislation introduced in January by Rep. LaShawn Ford–”whose district includes Austin, one of the neighborhoods with the highest rates of returning prisoners–”and Rep. Mike Boland of Moline.

The bill calls for the development of policies that address the arrest of an adult in front of their children, establishes guidelines for officer training and allots two additional local telephone calls to an arrested person identified as a custodial parent.

“Once a parent is taken away from a kid, you could have the kids home alone,” said Ford, who has also authored legislation about helping ex-offenders gain employment after their release. “They will become victims of crimes themselves if they don’t have correct guidance once they are incarcerated.

“We didn’t want to leave kids vulnerable to the street,” Ford said.

The bill was referred to the House’s Rules Committee in March; both sponsors are optimistic that the bill will ultimately reach the Senate.

If the proposal becomes a statute it would enforce the efforts of advocates like Ranjana Bhargava of Connections, a Prisoner and Family Ministry program of Lutheran Social Services. Bhargava said Connections is in the planning stages of a presentation about proper arrest protocols that would be given in police departments statewide. She said the presentation will be four-fold, asking officers to find another adult who can be with the child, make the arrest with as little trauma as possible, explain what is happening to the child and not rebuke the child–”all as matters of policy.

“This is a movement that has to include children as the future investment,” Bhargava said.

Christiana Schmitz helped research this story.

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