Not A Priority

Zero seconds.

That’s how much time Cynthia had to prepare before her father came home after more than four years in prison.

Planning would have made things better, she thought later, after the year during which her mother and father fought constantly, during which her father drank and Christiana Schmitz

heavily and ended up committing another crime that got him locked up again. Talking to him on the phone before his return would have helped. So would have visits to the prison to prepare her family for the change.

Instead, the moment she had thought about for years at night in her bedroom on the second floor of her family’s red-brick townhouse in north suburban Niles just happened. There he was in the doorway, and things started moving way too fast.

The sheen of the visit, like the smell of a freshly cleaned room, quickly wore off. Soon her father was yelling at Cynthia, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, and her sister about why the house wasn’t clean, about taking responsibility, about being respectful.

Although she generally obeyed her parents, this time Cynthia yelled back. It all seemed so unfair to her. She told her father if he wanted her to take responsibility, he shouldn’t have gotten arrested and gone to prison. Then she stormed upstairs and stayed in her room, leaving her mother standing there in helpless frustration.

In an ideal world, a social worker would have helped Cynthia get used to her dad again long before he left prison. But for many children with incarcerated parents, Illinois is not an ideal world.

More than one year after state Senate President Emil Jones Jr. and Rep. Constance “Connie” Howard called for statewide hearings about the experiences of children with incarcerated parents, the terrain for Illinois children like Cynthia is decidedly uneven.

Although each phase of the law enforcement process–” arrest, adjudication, incarceration and release–”includes some aspect that addresses the needs of children like Cynthia, in practice their needs are an after-thought–”typically addressed on an individual and inconsistent, rather than systematic, basis.

The Chicago Reporter found that formal arrest protocols are absent, the attention paid to children’s needs during the sentencing phase of the legal process is erratic and limited to a small percentage of cases, and no programs are specifically dedicated to reuniting families before the parents’ release.

The Reporter found:

–¢ None of the 16 police departments surveyed has formal arrest protocols or policies about how to handle an arrest scene where children are uninvolved but present.

–¢ The collection of information about an offender’s family is a required element of “presentence reports” that generally are written by probation officers and sent to judges. These reports generally are produced only when the defendant is found guilty, but there is no agreement about the imposition of a specific sentence.

–¢ The Illinois Department of Corrections allows contact visits at all but one of the state’s 28 prisons, but they can be revoked as a disciplinary measure. Some advocates say the department’s definition of contact is far too restrictive.

–¢ The corrections department has child-friendly visiting areas in all five of the women’s facilities. A department spokesman said “many” of the 25 men’s prisons have such areas but could not say how many. The department also has no programming during the pre-release process specifically designed to reunite families.

–¢ Communication gaps that work against children’s needs being met exist between the different agencies involved.

Although Illinois has made some progress in talking about how to meet the needs of these children with incarcerated parents, the findings show that in many ways the state still falls short of that goal, said Dee Ann Newell, a former Open Society Institute fellow who has worked with organizations in 16 states dedicated to helping children with incarcerated parents.

“There’s a lot of incredible interest in how to serve the children in the community,” Newell said. “But in terms of actual place and polices, [Illinois] is just now on that pathway.”

The issue is a critical one as tens of thousands of children, who are disproportionately poor and African American or Latino, ultimately end up joining their parents in America’s prisons. According to a 2004 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics survey, about 3 percent of the inmates said they have a child in the prison system.

Improving service delivery is vital, according to Gail T. Smith, executive director of Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers, a nonprofit organization that provides legal and educational services to maintain the bond between incarcerated mothers and their children.

Having a comprehensive approach can both increase service quality by highlighting best practices and reduce the negative consequences children can experience from their parents’ incarceration, Smith said, adding that the issue is particularly urgent now because the United States is the world’s largest jailer, with more than 2 million people imprisoned or in jail in 2007.

“Because of the explosion [in prisoner numbers], and because it’s clear that there is an impact on the children to the disruption, if we don’t stop and take three steps back, we risk having an even larger number of incarcerated people that will impact education budgets, infrastructure budgets, housing, jobs and all of that,” Smith said.

In many cases, children’s first glimpse at their parent’s involvement in the criminal justice system isn’t during a trial or a visit; it’s at the moment of arrest.

In some instances, advocates say, children could be forced to lie face down on the ground with a gun pointed at their head. Other children could have to watch their parents being dragged forcibly from their homes.

A survey of police departments in the state’s 10 largest cities, as well as six cities with a high rate of prisoners returning in 2005, yielded mixed results.

Law enforcement officials in 11 of the 16 police districts said their officers make an effort to minimize trauma for a child during the arrest of a parent.

Tactics include asking the arrestee to step outside so that the child does not see his or her parent being handcuffed, making the arrest when the child is not home, asking the child to leave the room, allowing the parent to hug the child goodbye or even carrying stuffed animals in squad cars.

“We don’t employ monsters,” said Sgt. Tim Curry of the Maywood Police Department. “We do take measures to safeguard kids’ physical and psychological well-being. We like to make sure the kid is safe.”

But the extent to which children can be taken into consideration depends on the individual officer’s discretion and the behavior of the person under arrest. While police officers talked about easing or eliminating arrests in front of children, they acknowledged that “best practice” scenarios aren’t always realistic–”particularly during dangerous arrests.

“We don’t want to have to handcuff somebody in front of their children –¦ but it depends on the situation,” said Ann Dinges, public information officer of the Elgin Police Department.

None of the 16 departments surveyed has an explicit policy for arresting a parent while a child is present. Instead, officers said their protocol when making an arrest in front of a child is to make sure that the child is left with another parent, an appointed guardian, or the Department of Children and Family Services.

Many see this lack of policy as a shortcoming. Nell Bernstein, advocate and author of the book, “All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated,” cautioned that, without intensive training and support from the top, individual protocols may have little value.

Bernstein also underscored the need for advance planning like having an extra officer available when police believe there are going to be children present during an arrest.”If you are arresting somebody on drugs, it would be great if everybody would be beautifully behaved. Given that that’s not going to happen, does that mean that you don’t have to pay attention to children’s needs?” Bernstein said. “If we have to take some extra steps to make that happen, that’s what we need to do.”

Wayne Walles, commander of the Waukegan Police Department, said the nature of some arrests work against creating a formal policy. “An arrest situation is very fluid and very rapidly changing,” he said. “There are too many variables to dictate it by a hard-and-fast policy.”

According to state law, dependent people’s “excessive hardship” because of imprisonment is one of 13 mitigating factors that can allow judges to shorten a defendant’s sentence or to consider alternative sentencing methods.

Some advocates say a family impact statement needs to be presented as evidence of such hardship.

According to Newell, the idea of such statements was modeled on an environmental impact assessment, which is an evaluation of the likely influence a project may have on the environment. Some cities like San Francisco have moved forward with the development of a form to document such impact–”but not in Illinois.

The state law, however, requires that the defendant’s family situation and background be included as part of the pre-sentence report, which generally is written when the defendant is found guilty, but there is no agreement about the imposition of a specific sentence.

The Reporter surveyed probation officers, as well as public defenders and circuit court judges, in the 10 Illinois counties that had the highest number of returning prisoners in 2007.

Each of the 10 counties, probation officers or officials said that information about a defendant’s family is collected in presentence reports. In most cases, the information about children is self-reported and not independently verified, several officers said.

Jeffery Jefko Sr., deputy director with Kane County Court Services, said his county’s presentence report includes a chance for the defendant to make a statement about the impact his or her incarceration would have on the family. “We don’t edit it all,” said Jefko, who has worked in the probation field for about 30 years. “As we get it, that’s how it’s typed into the report.”

Jefko estimated that 25 percent of defendants write such a statement.

After its completion, the presentence report must be sent to a judge as well as to attorneys on both sides at least three days in advance of the presentence hearing, according to Illinois law.

Public defenders and circuit judges interviewed said they present and consider the impact of the offender’s incarceration on children and other dependents during the sentencing phase.

Still, there were some who called the impact on children a “secondary concern” compared with the punishment of the person who committed a crime.”Family shouldn’t be a –˜get out of jail free’ card,” said Patrick Kelley, a Sangamon County judge.

“I wouldn’t want to consider a statement by a parent or spouse and not have that person subjected to cross-examination,” said Terry Gamber, resident circuit judge of Jefferson County.

For cases in which there are mandatory minimum sentences, judges have no discretion to consider the impact on a defendant’s children. Nonviolent drug offenses, for example, are one type of crime that carry a mandatory sentence in Illinois.

“Sometimes the judge’s hands are kind of tied,” said Herman S. Haase, a public defender in Will County. “There’s so much mandatory stuff right now –¦ that, even though it’s tough on the defendant’s family, the judges just don’t have much of a choice.”

A number of the public defenders appeared open to receiving information about the impact of incarceration on a defendant’s children as a standard practice.

But others expressed strong opposition to the idea. “I resist the idea of the introduction of information about people’s children being a mandatory element of the presentence investigation,” Gamber said.

Even in cases when a defendant’s family situation does lead to the defendant’s sentence being mitigated, that same situation does not necessarily play a significant role in where that prisoner is incarcerated.

Deb Denning, deputy director of the Illinois Department of Corrections’ Women and Family Services division, explained that the women’s side of the department tries to place prisoners in the county where they lived before their incarceration. Derek Schnapp, a department spokesman, said that, for male prisoners, being a parent “may play” a factor in prison placement but is not the determining factor.

For his part, Steven M. Mensing, a warden at Vandalia Correctional Center, a male facility, said placing a prisoner in the county where he lives could entice prisoners to attempt an escape. He explained that prisoners are more likely to “rabbit” when they are close to home than when they are far away from where they live.

Mensing did support the approach of alternative sentences such as drug treatment and intensive probation supervision. Under many of these sentences, defendants

receive a suspended sentence and drug treatment, with the understanding that a stiffer sentence will be given for subsequent violations. These arrangements often allow the family to stay intact, to address some of the causes of the defendant’s behavior and keep the prison rolls down, said James K. Booras, chief circuit judge of Lake County.

“They are a good idea, obviously, for a few reasons,” Booras said. “They get the jail population down. We don’t receive the results of rehabilitation that we should since we are incarcerating too many people. I think it’s used more often now –¦ because we have no jail space.”

Twelve-year-old Jackie loves to see her father in prison and knows that he feels the same way. “He smiles a lot when he sees us,” says Jackie, who is an honors student at National Teacher’s Academy.

The visits take place in a large room with lots of families sitting around tables. Her father asks about how Jackie, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, is doing in school before spending most of the time talking with her mother. Jackie always ends the visit happy that she has seen him.

According to Januari Smith, department spokeswoman, the corrections department allows “contact visits” at all but one of its 28 prisons.

Only inmates at the Tamms Correctional Center, a maximum-security facility, do not have this privilege, she said.

Smith said children visiting parents are allowed to exchange an initial and departing hug and can hold hands during the vis-

they deserve. They didn’t do anything wrong.

“Call it what you want, but don’t call it a contact visit –¦ That sounds like torment advertising as a contact visit,” she said.

Denning of the corrections department’s women’s division said that the five women’s facilities practice a different brand of contact.

“We encourage moms to hold kids and sit on laps,” Denning said, adding that the prisons sometimes provide combs for mothers to comb their daughters’ hair. She explained that each of the women’s facilities also have a child area where mothers can sit down with books, read to her child, play on the floor or watch a video.

What does exist, according to Robin Riggs, re-entry programs administrator for the department, is a plethora of programs for ex-offenders in preparation for their release. She cited programs dealing with education and lifestyle changes as well as one- or two-day “re-entry summits” for offenders.

At a recent re-entry event at Vandalia Correctional Center–” the facility’s first–”about 150 inmates sat in chairs on a carpeted gym floor.

Summit participants heard motivational speakers like ex-offender and author Victor Woods and found out about employment possibilities after their releases.

“The important thing to know is that there [has] never been a better time to be an offender,” Riggs said.

Programs dealing with parenting are available to offenders of all levels at all facilities, according to Smith, but none that specifically deal with family reunification. She said it was not possible to provide data about how many prisoners participate in the programs.

Denning of the women’s division said she would like to have such programs but explained that the cost prohibits it: “Do we love that idea? Absolutely. Will I say that is going to happen? It’s in our five-year goals.”

There are also gaps in communication between agencies involved. Just one of the police departments said they sometimes pass information about the children of the arrestee to the jail in which the parent is held. The content of presentence reports is not always passed onto the Illinois Department of Corrections. Denning said that any information about prisoners’ children comes only from the parents themselves.

Roberta Fews, deputy director of the office of programs and support services at the corrections department, said she and others are committed to closing the gaps so that more information can be transmitted and the children’s needs can be met.

Some say legitimate privacy concerns exist, and that parents, for fear of having their custody removed, should have the choice whether to disclose if they have children.

Newell said figuring out some balance is important to best meet children’s needs.

“If we are going to talk about comprehensive services, we are going to have to have comprehensive communication,” Newell said. “There are going to be layers with consents and an ethical sense [that] we don’t need to use concern for children as another layer of exploitation.”

These and other challenges notwithstanding, she sounded guardedly optimistic about the state’s treatment of these children.

“We’re taking the first steps of a very big mountain,” said Newell, a national authority on the subject of children with incarcerated parents. “I definitely think things are improving, [but] we’re not where we need to be.”

Contributing: Alex Campbell

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