The Hidden Victims of Crime

July 13, 2003

by Lisa Rosetta of The Bend Bulletin

Kristy Stein remembers watching her parents hover over lines of cocaine as a child. When she was 12 years old, she joined them.

By 17, Stein had run away from home, shoplifted and gotten pregnant twice – the first resulted in a miscarriage, the second, the birth of her oldest child, Ellie.

The 32-year-old Salem woman knew what law and disorder was before she knew how to read. She was 4 years old when she saw her parents get arrested for the first time.

Now she is the mother of four and an inmate serving 31 months on identity theft and drug convictions at the Coffee Creek Correctional Institute.

She’s biding her time until she gets out of here. And she’s hoping her children won’t be taking her place.

Stein’s four children have watched her get arrested. They associate cops with the panic, fear and loss they feel when their parents are shuffled away with their wrists handcuffed behind their backs.

Walking through a store parking lot one day, Stein’s son spotted a parked police car, “’Mom, there’s a cop’,” he said, according to Stein. “’You better hide.’”

Her children had their first brush with the law when they snuck contraband – bubble gum – into the prison for her Christmas gift.

“I’ve made some really poor parenting choices,” she said. “I’ve given my stamp of approval of my children engaging in criminal activity, and was not even aware of what I was doing by not redirecting them.”

Children of prisoners are one of Oregon’s highest-risk populations for juvenile delinquency, depression and drug abuse. They are five to six times more likely than their peers to someday be incarcerated themselves.

What’s more, about 40 percent of the 15,000 children of incarcerated parents in Oregon will likely end up drifting through the state’s foster care system, taxing a string of social programs, according to a 2000 corrections department survey.

Since 1991, the number of children with a parent in prison has increased by more than 50 percent nationwide, according to a 2002 report to the Oregon Legislature.

Most of these children have an incarcerated father, but a growing number, currently 8 percent, have mothers who are ending up behind bars.

At a time when role models and mentors are critical, how do children of convicted felons mold their own lives? What are the odds of them taking a different life path, with the help of social programs in place?

Those are just the beginning of questions for researchers and corrections professionals, who hope that by interrupting the life trajectory of these children, they might be able to curb crime.

But to do so may not be easy. Children whose parents are in prison face problems at multiple points in the criminal justice system, from watching their parents get arrested to learning to cope with their absence and eventual return.

Stein, who is in prison for the second time, is a graduate of Parenting Inside Out, a 12-week prison program the state is eyeing with interest. The program, which boasts 600 graduates since it began in September, has armed Stein with better parenting skills that she can put to use when she is reunited with her children, she said.

But the program’s real mission is to keep her kids out of prison, said Dr. Rex Newton, parenting education director for the Oregon Department of Corrections.

“Typically, corrections has always been about adults,” he said. “I’ve been (working in) the prison system for 32 years. We didn’t talk about children for 27 years. They never even considered collecting that data. They are absolutely an invisible part of the criminal justice scenario.

The program, jointly developed by the corrections department and the Oregon Social Learning Center in Eugene, is piloted at the men’s Oregon State Correctional Institute in Salem, and the women’s Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville.

Just how effective programs like Parenting Inside Out are, researchers don’t know, said Dr. Benjamin de Haan, interim director of the Oregon Department of Corrections and director of Portland State University’s Criminal Justice Policy Research Institute.

The Social Learning Center has received a $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Mental Health to conduct a five-year study of how information acquired by parents in this program impacts their children, he said.

“Some would say that we’re seeing a collateral effect we’ve never seen before,” de Haan said. “There are so many people in prison, it has become a new social problem…. We didn’t ever ask people if they had children. We didn’t know.”

Behind Bars

On June 30, 11 inmates at the Oregon State Correctional Institute graduated from Parenting Inside Out. The master of ceremonies for the evening was Michael Meehan, who has served 16 years of a life sentence for murder.

His wife, Rexanna, whom he met through a mutual inmate buddy and married while in prison, was there, along with his step-grandson. They watched Meehan and the other imprisoned men read stories, act out skits and sing the Native American “Women’s Honor Song” and the “Children’s Song” to the deep thunderous sound of a powwow drum.

Some of the youngest children in the room have seen their fathers only a few times during their prison stay. The youngsters crawled on the floor, played with scattered Legos, laughed and pushed buttons on talking toys while their dads and granddads accepted their certificates.

“You will never, ever, ever do anything more important than being a father,” Newton said at the end of the ceremony in front of the small audience. “End of story.”

Afterward, Meehan and his wife played with their grandson in a side room adjoining the visitor’s area. Toys were scattered around the room, and the Disney movie “Lilo and Stitch” played on the television behind them. For a moment, they looked like an ordinary family, oblivious to the extraordinary circumstances that put them here.

Before Meehan and his wife married about seven years ago, he asked Rexanna’s teenage daughter for her permission.

“’I’ll let you marry my mom if I can call you Dad,’” she said over the phone, according to Meehan. Since that moment, he has committed to being a source of emotional support for her, albeit from the confines of his prison cell. His stepdaughter has written to the state parole board and asked for his release.

He wishes he could do more for his family. “Men are supposed to be this ‘fixer’ kind of person and you can’t in here,” he said. “You’re trying real hard to do real well. You’ve met someone special. But the reality is, you’re here.”

The Hidden Victims

If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at one, I will.

Mother Teresa

The plaque that says this sits on Mary Anny Colby’s desk. In 1999, she founded Children Made Visible, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to forming support groups in schools for children whose parents are in prison.

Colby, the mother of two, has witnessed firsthand the anguish children feel when they lose a parent to the system. Her ex-husband went to prison 27 years ago on a murder conviction.

About 40 children in Portland public schools are in the support groups. There, they find a safe environment to talk about their parents and not be ashamed of their family. The groups, usually of no more than eight children, make up their own rules, one of which is always “You don’t have to talk,” Colby said.

And in the beginning, many don’t.

But she has witnessed great progress in these groups.

She recalls a fifth-grader whose father was in prison, whose stepfather was in jail and whose grandfather had been electrocuted. He came to his first group meeting reluctantly.

“By the end of 17 weeks, he was the last one to leave,” she said. Now his teachers are talking about letting him skip a grade.

The children play with toys like dolls or punching bags; they draw pictures of their families, often in ways that are violent. One child drew a picture of his stepfather’s head being cut off.

These children’s lives are often chaotic, Colby said. They experience tremendous anxiety when their parents are taken away, and again when they return home.

By middle school and high school, many children and teens are difficult to work with, Colby said. They’ve developed sophisticated defense mechanisms, and have in many cases already been suspended from school.

“(They’re) the hidden victims of crime,” Colby said.

Making Children Visible

Programs targeted at these children are popping up around the state.

In Deschutes County, the sheriff’s office is in the process of applying for a federal grant to launch a mentoring program for children of incarcerated parents in the county. The sheriff’s office is hoping to get $200,000.

“It’s easy from the vantage point to reach the parents because they’re a captive audience, so to speak,” said Rob Burch, a psychologist and mental health supervisor for the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office. “But it’s much more difficult to reach the children and that’s where we have to get involved. … No one is specifically targeting this population locally right now.”

In 2000, the state spearheaded the Children of Incarcerated Parents Project work group to better understand the needs of children of prisoners.

Parenting Inside Out resulted from this initiative, as well as two other programs, Even Start and Early Head Start.

Coffee Creek is the home to the first Even Start Family Literacy program in the country.

The program facilitates family bonding and improves parenting skills while addressing the literacy needs of both mothers and children.

Another opportunity for inmate mothers to practice their parenting skills is Early Head Start, which serves up to eight children at a time. Mother and child are allowed to interact twice a week, for a few hours at a time.

“I think at first it’s hard, the first few days they come,” said Sharon Bolmeier, project manager of Early Head Start. “But after awhile it works … They see the benefit of it, even thought it’s not always easy for them or the kids.”

Going Home

Cindy Duran, 32, wore jeans and a blue V-neck shirt to the Mill Creek Station café in Salem. The Mt. Angel woman was released in late June from Coffee Creek, where she was serving time for drug and identity theft convictions.

She left with $30 in her pocket, she said. Duran was nervous, and sipped on a paper cup of steaming coffee.

For the next month or so, she’ll stay in the Oxford House, a women’s shelter, and look for work. Her four children, who live with their father and grandmother, are slowly accepting her back into their lives after a 27-month absence.

When Duran went to prison, her 6-month-old daughter went to live with her Hispanic grandmother. Now her daughter speaks only broken English. Duran was also one week pregnant with her youngest child when she was booked.

Her newborn son went into foster care for 15 months, until a paternity test confirmed who his father was.

Duran decided she’s not quite ready to move home yet.

“How do I go from being here to starting back in the family?” she asked.

Duran is trying to earn back her children’s trust, one small way at a time. If she says she’ll pick them up at 7 p.m., she isn’t more than five minutes late. Her children sit out in the yard and wait for her.

She promised them $10 worth of fireworks for the Fourth of July. When she ran low on money, that $10 stayed in her pocket – for fireworks.

“When I tell them something, that’s what I’m going to do,” she said.

Before she went to prison, she fell down on these promises so she could get high.

“The stuff that I put them through, not even realizing it back then…,” she trails off.

Duran needs help relearning parenting. She calls staff at the Early Head Start program at Coffee Creek for advice. Her first question: What kind of projects can she and her children do with felt and glue?

“As long as I keep making the choices that I’m making now – doing the next right thing, the next right thing, one foot in front of the other – each day is a new day,” she said. “…Putting forth the effort for my kids is what I have to do.”

Lisa Rosetta can be reached at 541-617-7812 or lrosetta@bendbulletin.com

Copyright 2003, The Bend Bulletin. Reprinted with permission.