Hope for the Hidden Casualties of Florida’s Corrections System

By Leon Fooksman

J.C. is a 6-year-old with dreadlocks, piercing brown eyes and dreams of playing in the NBA. He likes to lose himself in video games, watch zebras at the zoo, and wear his shiny Michael Jackson-style shoes.

The kindergardener is also angry, defiant and prone to fits of violence. He has tried to stab his older brother with a pencil, scissors and a knife. He suffers from anxiety, attention deficit and symptoms of post-traumatic disorder. He has been held back in school.

His mother, Tatiana Marcel, believes J.C.’s problems started nearly two years ago after police busted through the front door of their south Miami-Dade County apartment and took away his father in handcuffs on charges of premeditated murder.

“I miss him a lot,” J.C. said.

But there is hope for J.C. -- he recently started working with a mental health therapist and a social worker through the Service Network for Children of Inmates, a nonprofit coalition that includes eight professional and faith-based agencies in Miami-Dade County.

The two coordinators make certain that J.C. lives in a safe home, gets plenty to eat, progresses in school, visits doctors routinely, and, ultimately, reconnects with his father through regular jail visits. They also educate his teachers and other counselors about the unique hardships facing a child whose parent is incarcerated.

“We want kids like J.C. treated like human beings,” said Shareefah Brand, a site supervisor for Agape Family Ministries in Cutler Bay, a partner in the Service Network and the agency working with J.C.

“Too often, they’re in an emotional upheaval,” she added. “They don’t know where their parents are. They’re staying with people they don’t belong to. They don’t trust anyone.”

Frequently poor to begin with, these children become more impoverished once their fathers or mothers are arrested. They are known to shuffle from one relative to another. Many develop mental illness and anti-social behaviors. Some wind up behind bars themselves, perpetuating the cycle of crime and imprisonment from one generation to the next.

The Service Network works intensively with 500 of the 15,000 children in Miami-Dade County whose parents are behind bars. The goal is to pull these children in from the brink, organizers say.

Funded by the Children’s Trust of Miami-Dade, the nearly three-year-old Service Network covers the part of the salaries of 15 care coordinators and pays for children to visit incarcerated parents. Participating agencies add in mentoring, leadership, and after-school programs.

In Liberty City, one of the few constants in B.J’s life is that three days a week a red van pulls up to her home and takes her to an after-school program at Hosanna Community Baptist Church.

The program gives the 12-year-old a place to polish her reading and math skills, and provides a much-needed break for her 84-year-old great-aunt who has cared for B.J. and her 9-year-old brother since their mother began going in and out of incarceration years ago.

On a recent evening, B.J. shared the van with a dozen other children picked up at public housing complexes and shabby apartment buildings. Before long, the shy sixth-grader sat around a table in the church’s sanctuary immersed in a reading comprehension exercise.

The church’s Rev. Charles Dinkins, whose foundation is participating in the Service Network, said B.J. has changed a lot since coordinators started monitoring her about two years ago. Less withdrawn, she has made friends and improved in school, he said.

“We’re cutting away at the family risk-factors,” Dinkins said. “While these kids are with me, they don’t get into trouble. They know there are caring adults here.”

Still, B.J. says she misses her mother and wishes she was a part of her daily life. She doesn’t like to talk about her mother in depth. She has no idea what her mother did to end up behind bars.

Like J.C. and many other children of inmates, B.J. has paid a heavy toll for the crimes of a parent, advocates say. Yet for all the emotional and psychological pain, she hasn’t stopped being a child. And dreaming about a better life.

She wants to become a veterinarian someday.

“I love dogs and cats. They make me happy,” she said.

Leon Fooksman is a journalist who writes for Service Network for Children of Inmates. He can be reached at leon@astorytellingcompany.com

** The Service Network of Children of Inmates has commissioned journalists to research and write articles pertaining to issues facing children of the incarcerated.