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“What Will Happen to Me?“

(Image: Good Books)

“What Will Happen to Me?”
Howard Zehr and Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz
(Good Books, 2010)
$14.95US/$14.95CAN, ISBN-10: 9781561486892

In 2004, I facilitated a discussion on incarcerated mothers at the MamaGathering, an alternative parenting conference in Minneapolis. The 20-plus parents who attended the discussion were politically conscious, if not politically active. Among them was a social worker who worked with children in foster care.

In 1997, Congress passed the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA). ASFA stipulated that states must begin terminating the legal rights of parents whose children are in foster care for 15 of the past 22 months. The termination is irrevocable. Only three states made exceptions in cases of parental incarceration; the third state, New York, only passed its discretion act in August 2010.

The results were dramatic: termination proceedings involving incarcerated parents increased 108 percent nationwide from 260 in 1997 to 909 in 2002. In contrast, in the five years before ASFA, the number of termination proceedings increased from 113 in 1992 to 142 in 1996.

For the social worker at the MamaGathering, ASFA could only be a good thing. After all, she reasoned, kids need permanent homes and ASFA supposedly frees children to be adopted. She had never considered many of the societal factors leading to parental, particularly maternal, incarceration. I suspect the same was true for most of her colleagues.

“What Will Happen to Me?” would have been a great resource to hand to her. The book begins with the thoughts, stories and photos of 30 children of incarcerated parents. Again and again, the children express missing their parents. Many wish that their parents could be physically present in their lives: “Can I give Daddy a hug? I wanna give Daddy a hug!” was the statement under preschooler Nyveah's photo. “In my dreams I thought she was coming back,” states teenage Lynisa. “And I was happy when she did come back.” La'chasta, another teenager, says, “People ask, When you are 21, will you still stay with your mom? I will, 'cause I'm gonna try to make up all the time.”

Not every child feels the same way. Stacey, now an adult with her PhD, remembered, “It was the idea of a father that I was longing for, because he [Stacey's father] never fit the bill.” Teenage Shanika put it even more strongly: “I don't want no part of him [her father] because he wasn't even around when I was growing … When he gets out, I don't need him to be coming in, messing up what I have.”

The book also includes reflections from several grandparents who have taken on the roles of primary caregivers. Carolyn and Darnell Hobbs, raising their two grandchildren, observe, “Foster parents get money to keep these kids. We can't get nothin' and we're on a fixed income. There's a lot of things you would like to do that you can't for that reason.” They recognize the importance of taking care of their grandchildren rather than allowing social services to place them elsewhere: “We'd rather raise them up than throw 'em out there and let somebody just halfway kill them or ruin them before they live. We can do what we can do.”

Jacqueline, raising four grandchildren, is even more frank about the harsh economic realities of taking care of her incarcerated daughter's children. She recounts, “They told me, 'You might have to give them to the state – put them in the system as abandoned children. You might lose them for thirty days but you can get them back.' I won't do it … I don't know if I would get them back. They'd probably separate them. So I'm looking for a job but I'm running out of time.”

Jacqueline has no illusions about the systemic lack of financial and societal support for caregivers and the overall indifference to family members – both children and grandparents – impacted by incarceration. “If I was a mother and these were my kids and I got laid off my job, they would help me get another job or send me to a program and I'd get Medicaid. But I'm just their grandmother and they won't help me.”

Acknowledging that caregivers' needs are too often overlooked, even by those concerned about the impact of incarceration on families and children, the book includes a short list of suggestions entitled “Self-Care for Family Caregivers.” While these suggestions do not replace the need for societal transformation and social safety nets, they are important reminders that the needs of caregivers must also be considered.

Recognizing, too, that caregivers may also have their own feelings of anger, frustration or disappointment toward their incarcerated family members, the authors caution: “Adults who relate to these children need to understand that children love their parents, even when their parents have committed crimes. The children need to be able to talk about their parents' incarceration to people who are understanding. They need adults who will not condemn their loved ones, who will understand the range of emotions they are experiencing and who will let them express those emotions so that they can learn appropriate ways of coping.”

Like other books written about children of incarcerated parents, “What Will Happen to Me?” also addresses the issue of mass incarceration. Unlike other books, which focus on drug crimes and mandatory minimum sentencing laws as the cause of mass imprisonment, the authors recognize that people sometimes are incarcerated for causing harm to others. They recommend restorative justice as an alternative to imprisonment and the ensuing destruction of families and communities. Restorative justice approaches address all who have been impacted by a person's harmful actions: the victims and their families, the person who caused the harm and that person's family and community. Restorative justice requires that the person:

  1. acknowledge and repair the harm that he/she has caused
  2. take appropriate responsibility and actions to repair this harm
  3. address the needs of all who are involved

Because the nuances of restorative justice would turn this 96-page book into a tome, the authors, both of whom are active in and have written about restorative justice practices, include a list of resources on organizations and publications that address families and incarceration as well as books and web sites where readers can find more information on the ideas and models of restorative justice.

While I can't travel back in time to show “What Will Happen to Me?” to that skeptical social worker, others concerned about the children impacted by mass incarceration now have another tool to open discussions about these policies and realistic alternatives that do not destroy families and communities.

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