- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 26, 2001

Five-year-old Leondre Grissett, like many children his age, is a spark plug of a boy who likes dinosaurs and Pokemon and the playground. He is excited about starting kindergarten this year and already can write his name in large, scratchy uppercase letters.

Unlike many other children, though, Leondre often misses the loving touch of his mother.

"Sometimes Leondre asks how come his mother doesn't love him," says his grandmother, Betty Morgan of Capitol Heights. "I say, 'It's not that she doesn't love you, it's that she can't be with you.'"

Leondre's mother, Deanna Morgan, can't be with her son because she is an inmate at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup, Md., some 23 miles away from his home. The 21-year-old is serving a six-year sentence for robbery perpetrated on an elderly man during the course of a crack addiction she says she was powerless to resist.

The criminal-justice system is an undeserved and unwelcome element in the lives of many American children. At year-end 2000, the most recent time for which figures are available, more than 1.5 million minor children had an imprisoned parent, says Allen J. Beck, chief of corrections statistics at the Bureau of Justice Statistics. A majority of those children were younger than 10 the average child was 8, he says.

The keys to jail go hand in hand with the keys to the welfare of these children, social scientists and child advocates say. Children who lose open access to their mothers suffer the stress what one pediatrician calls the "developmental insult" of unnatural separation.

The economic platform of these children usually already low sinks further still. They often harbor feelings of stigma and guilt related to the incarceration. Those without a bonded protector also are vulnerable to abuse, neglect and involvement in the juvenile-justice system.

These children should be everyone's concern, says Dr. Denise Johnston, executive director of the Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents in Eagle Rock, Calif.

"Society is as responsible for these kids as it is for any child, and society is responsible to make sure their quality of life is adequate," she says.

Kinship care

The two-bedroom apartment where Leondre lives with his grandparents and two small cousins, Shaunte and Benjamin, in Capitol Heights has cracked, peeling walls. Battered furniture is crowded into the bedrooms; in one, a TV tuned in to a children's program blares. A book of Bible stories lies on a small table. Several fans loudly move hot, stale air around the place.

Mrs. Morgan says she is tired, but her grandchildren keep her moving.

"Having grandkids really brings out the youth in you," she says. "It makes you feel young." She is 44 and the mother of six children, all born before she reached her 24th birthday.

Mrs. Morgan is what MaryLee Allen, director of the Child Welfare and Mental Health division of the Children's Defense Fund, says is known as a "kinship caregiver."

Ms. Allen explains that in 1998, "more than 2.14 million children lived with grandparents or other relatives without their parents present because their parents could not care for them for one reason or another. Incarceration is one reason."

In fact, she says, more than 80 percent of incarcerated mothers nationwide reported their children were living with relatives or friends.

Providing this care can strain an already threadbare pocketbook, and the largest percentage of kinship caregivers receive no special public financial support, Ms. Allen says.

Mrs. Morgan says she receives public health benefits but no other services or subsidies for the three grandchildren in her care.

"They will not allow me to receive any because my husband makes too much," she says. Her husband works as a dishwasher and sandwich maker at a Rockville restaurant.

"We need to have a system to find out what different families need," Ms. Allen says. Some need financial assistance, while some need nothing more than peer support. Others need mental health or other special services for the children.

Linking children of incarcerated parents to these special services would require a structured system of support. Such an element, child-welfare advocates say, does not exist.

"There just isn't a real network to help deal with what it is like to have a parent who all of a sudden is gone," says Susan Galbraith, president and executive director of Our Place D.C., a nonprofit organization that provides services to district women who are incarcerated and returning to the community and their children.

"While many social-service and community-based organizations see children of incarcerated parents, there is no 'system' of care. If the children develop problems, they may come to the attention of the school or a social-service agency, and it is at that time that information about their mother's incarceration comes up."

Problems and addictions

Dr. Johnston, who has been studying incarcerated mothers and their children for more than 12 years via her Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents, likes to begin her discussions about these families at ground zero.

"We need to be realistic about what's going on," she says. "The fact that you have a family that produced a prisoner is indicative that you have a family that has lots of problems."

A big one, she says, is that most offenders are drug-addicted. In fact, at midyear 2000, 58 percent of parents in state prisons said they had been using drugs in the month before their arrest; 34 percent had been under the influence of drugs at the time of the offense, Mr. Beck says.

Deanna Morgan knows all about families with problems and addictions. She gave birth to her son, Leondre, as a young teen-ager. Leondre's father, whom she never married, recently was released from prison. Deanna's twin, Denise, also is incarcerated.

Ms. Morgan sits, arms crossed, at a long conference table in a classroom at the Jessup prison. She is in her seventh month of incarceration. She knows how she got there but says she still can hardly believe it.

The inmate tells of her addiction to crack cocaine and marijuana, which she says she used "all day, every day." She says she readily stole from people or exchanged sex for crack or the money to buy the drug.

"I was powerless over my addiction," Ms. Morgan says. "It just kept going. I said, 'I don't need a job, 'cuz I have a nice body.'"

Now, she says, she spends a lot of time in her 7-foot-by-12-foot cell worrying about her son.

"I want him to be a better person be a star in whatever he wants to be," Ms. Morgan says, tears rolling down her face. "A lot of people in my family have been in prison. I don't want him to grow up and think, 'Oh, cause my mommy and daddy do it, I can do it.'"

The Bureau of Justice Statistics does not have data on just how many children follow their parents into the corrections system. However, many justice watchers, such as Brenda Smith, an American University associate law professor, say negative influences bolster the likelihood for intergenerational incarceration.

Ms. Smith has studied and worked with incarcerated women for 15 years. She says the experiences of incarcerated mothers differ widely from those of incarcerated men who are fathers for one, she explains, before the mothers became incarcerated, they usually had much more significant contact with their children. She also emphasizes that although children of incarcerated parents "have every chance to succeed," the confusion and instability of incarceration "creates trauma for them, and in many ways, it sets kids up for going the same way as their parents."

Back to the community

Sharma Williams trod a different path than her mother, Sandy Williams, who works as an insurance underwriter. Although the younger woman always wanted to be a fashion model, she instead found herself at Jessup like thousands of others before her.

"I ended up here by being hardheaded, not going to school," explains the slim, attractive 28-year-old from Baltimore. Indeed, Ms. Williams looks as if she could have taken a stab at modeling save the scar across her cheek. "I chose to mess with hustlers," she says.

Her sentence for first-degree assault was 15 years all suspended but five. When she was interviewed in prison, she expected to be out in April 2002 if approved by the parole commission. To her surprise, she was released instead on July 23, after a judge modified her sentence.

That day couldn't have come too soon for her 9-year-old daughter, Sharmira, and 5-year-old son, Sharrod. Her boy was living with Ms. Williams' mother; her daughter split her time between her grandmother's home and her father's home. He works as a maintenance manager at a rehabilitation center.

Although Sharmira was brought to Jessup weekly to visit her mother, Ms. Williams said during her prison interview, "My son doesn't know I'm here. His father is locked up for 23 years in Pennsylvania. I think it would affect him." Sharrod had been told that his mother was in Miami on a work assignment.

Most little boys she knows are bad, she says, and that includes her son. He has a difficult time controlling himself and is prone to fits of rage.

"My son has a terrible behavior problem," Ms. Williams says. "He knows his mother and father is gone and he's so young." She says the strong bond she had been building with her son has been broken.

While still in prison she said, "I miss my kids a whole lot. I never thought I would feel this way about my kids never. I feel like I'm a failure. When I get another chance to be with them, I'll take advantage of it."

When she was released ahead of schedule, her mother, boyfriend and children were waiting with open arms. Especially her children.

"They just want to be around me all day," she says.

When the children return to school in September, Ms. Williams says, she plans to start working. A friend's mother is a supervisor at a local hospital, and Ms. Williams has been assured a job as a patient escort felony record notwithstanding.

It all could come together for someone like her, advocates of former inmates say.

"We believe really strongly that given the resources and support, women can be very successful in turning their lives around and giving support to their children," says Our Place's Ms. Galbraith.

Stacey Sage swears it will be that way for her, too. The baby-faced 34-year-old, glasses resting on her pink cheeks, is another Jessup resident with another story, sticking labels on envelopes in the prison shop and trying to "stay human."

She arrived at Jessup in November 2000, leaving two preteen boys back home in Calvert County with their dad and stepmom. Her blue eyes fill with tears as the words tumble out, and she fingers the rosary around her neck. She is known as "Crybaby" at Jessup.

Ms. Sage finds the separation from her children "overwhelming," she says. "I used to always say that they're the air that I breathe." She met the boys at the bus stop every day after school and took turns as the team mom in football and baseball.

But the pain of chronic depression and the memories of abuse at the hands of a family member finally became palpable, making Ms. Sage feel like a walking time bomb "that just exploded," she says. "I had a lot going for me, and I blew it."

She was convicted of forgery and will be eligible for parole next February.

Ms. Sage's sons have chosen not to reveal the truth of their mother's whereabouts to their friends. One tells people Ms. Sage has gone into the military; the other explains that his mother has gone away to work.

"What do the kids really think?" she asks. "They come here, they try to be happy for their mom, but you do wonder what they're thinking about when they're in their beds at night."

Ms. Sage says being locked up has given her lots of time for reflection.

"You have to take a look at yourself," she says. "Otherwise, you'll end up coming back and coming back, and I'm not doing it to my kids again."

Personal responsibility is one point Beverly Reid tries to impart to her students. The former Baltimore schoolteacher has been leading a prison-sponsored program called Family Life Education at Jessup for 18 years.

Five days a week for 15-week sessions, Ms. Reid lectures on parenting and personal development to women, each of whom comes with a Pandora's box of life experiences.

"Many of these women have never lived outside the family unit," she explains. "It's a learned helplessness. These women have been largely driven by getting their needs met. They live in the house with the grandmother, living like siblings with their children while 'Nana' manages the household."

The message she gives her students, Ms. Reid says, is "You might think you're hopeless, but it's not hopeless for your children if you make some changes."

She also says, however, that the women are going to have to figure out how to do it themselves.

"I think that by and large, society has written these ladies off," Ms. Reid says, her voice rising in anger. "The needs of these women go far beyond anything I can offer them in the program. I don't normally cry because I am too busy comforting those who do cry.

"This is a state facility," she continues. "The taxpayer has paid, so there shouldn't be any piggybacking to try to get the public to pay more. But I'm tired of fighting. The system does wear you down."

Any solutions?

It's true, says Dr. Johnston; incarcerated parents generally are an unattractive lot, and they can be a hard sell.

"Historically, the advocates have tried to focus on the needs of the children and how they're suffering because they're afraid that if people don't like the parents, they won't help the kids."

Big mistake, Dr. Johnston says.

"We cannot simply work with the kids because the kids have to work with the adults," she says.

At Jessup, between sessions of Ms. Reid's Family Life Education, Deanna Morgan eagerly looks forward to prison visiting days, when her mother, Betty, might bring Leondre to see his mother.

When they are joined, Ms. Morgan says, her boy always does something peculiar.

"He touches my face and smells me," she says. "I guess to make sure it's really me. He says, 'Remember, Mom, you gotta get yourself together so you can have me back.'"

Back at the family apartment in Capitol Heights, Betty Morgan sometimes pens letters to her daughter. "Be strong," she writes. "Hang in there. Things are going to get better."

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