Friday, February 8, 2008

naps are for suckers

My one-year-old son has never been a big sleeper. Recently he seems to be trying to kick the habit altogether. The fifth time he woke up last night, I decided to get tough. "I'm not playing with you now. It's snooze time." Closed my eyes and rolled over to show him I meant business.

Which resolve lasted about 12 seconds, until he started bellyflopping on my head, laughing like the diabolical mastermind I know him, at 2 a.m., to be.

When he had me where he wanted me (head under the pillow, whimpering pleas for mercy), he rolled to the edge of the bed and said something like, "later for you, sucker" as he waddled off toward his toy box. Or maybe he didn't; it was all a little blurry. But the point is that being a parent is really hard. Harder than I imagined anything could be, before I became one. And it's also better than I ever imagined anything could be. My son and I are one another's centers of gravity, and I can only envision the particles of my body disconnecting, my self drifting into an awful nothing if I didn't have him to make me make sense.

I've seen it happen. I used to work with HIV+ youth in Oakland, California. There are two young women in particular, the memories of whom sit like rocks in my gut. Y and M were both near the end of their teens when I met them. They had both grown up in foster care, been sexually abused, bounced from placement to placement, run away several times and ended up doing sex work to (meagerly) support themselves.

They were both wildly bright, in two senses of the word. M had a sneaky sense of humor and a way of stepping in close as though you and she were the only ones smart enough see what was so funny. Y was abrupt, especially when she got excited, all white teeth against violet lips. She was generous with everything she had -- clothes, money, cigarettes -- and then surprised that there was nothing left after she'd given it away. M wore sex like jewelry. Y was more physically intimidating -- beautiful, but I can't imagine someone picking her up on the street unless he had some taste for danger. I saw her temper explode with more than a few doctors and social workers. They were terrified.

I remember a therapist explaining to her that she had the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, which I thought was both a woeful understatement and ironically inaccurate, given that there never actually seemed to be a "post."

She believed she'd gotten HIV when she was raped at gunpoint in an alley.

Both Y and M had been incarcerated several times, since before their teens. M got her HIV diagnosis in juvenile hall. Y had spent time in an adult women's prison for assaulting a police officer. They had both dipped in and out of destructive drug habits. M's preference was heroin, Y's was crack, just like their respective mothers. Both had already given up custody of a child when I met them, and both got pregnant again while I knew them. These were the most intensive periods of our relationships. They needed help finding housing, getting drug treatment, stabilizing their incomes, dealing with the child welfare workers who would inevitably come into their lives. Babies orient people forward, and it was during their pregnancies that I saw most clearly the sparks of Y's and M's ill-nourished but extant senses of their own potential.

The most frustrating thing about working with people with drug problems, is that when they want help, it's hard to get. There are residential drug treatment programs in Oakland that accept women with babies, but they often have waiting lists of months. Potential clients have to call every day at a certain time -- a challenge for someone living in hotels or on the street. If you do get in, treatment centers are often run down and crowded, sidelined into neighborhoods where it's a lot easier to find crack than say, produce. They have roaches. Residents argue over food because there isn't enough to go around. Which isn't to say that some people don't do really well there, but I can't help thinking that I wouldn't be one of them.

For reasons that were complicated in the particular way that defines the intersection of drug use and social services, neither Y nor M had stable housing when their babies were born. They both lost custody immediately and were given reunification plans.

Which raised an endless series of questions: Could they conform their lives to a list of elaborate and often arbitrary rules? Could they find a place to live? Could they present themselves at 5 appointments a week in various parts of the city? Could they appear clean and composed when they did so? Could they negotiate with social workers and their children's foster carers to maintain a consistent schedule of visits? Could they remain calm, mature and solicitous in the faces of all the people who now had power over their lives? Most importantly, could they convince a series of skeptical caseworkers and judges that they were fit to be parents to their children?

It is a hard thing to think yourself worthy of raising a person, to accept the devotion and trust of someone who doesn't know enough to judge. I don't like pat psychoanalyses that lock people into their victimhood, but I can't imagine from where in their experiences of the world either Y or M would have found confidence in such a conviction. In the end, they both lost parental rights to their children.

And at least up until the end of my knowledge of their stories, that was game over. The next time I saw Y she was sitting at a bus stop, so high that a 10-second delay lodged between her thoughts and her ability to voice them. M called me twice from payphones near the SRO's she was sheltering in. She wanted to get clean. Could I come meet her? But by the time I arrived she was gone, dancing on the head of a needle.

That was eight years ago. I don't know what's happened since. I hope that Y and M found something around which to organize their lives, some path to follow forward. I hope they're not dead. I hope that their children are well somewhere. I don't know what else to do with the sadness of so much potential, dispersed into nothing. I think of them as supernovas. I list the things they would have needed to make their families work. I sing to my son when he wakes up at night.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

ASFA exceptions

I got an email yesterday from someone at the Correctional Association, saying that the New York State Assembly passed a billthat could make it easier for incarcerated parents to retain custody of their kids.

The bill mediates the impact of ASFA (the Adoption and Safe Families Act), which mandates that the state move to terminate parental rights if a child has been in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months. ASFA was intended to address real problems in the foster care system: kids can spend years bouncing from placement to placement, where terrible things often happen to them and terrible outcomes often result (click herefor an interesting study: http:). But ASFA is like slapping a coat of paint on a building overrun by termites. It doesn't fix anything. According to the Correctional Association, of the roughly 21,000 children who were freed for adoption in New York City from 2000 to 2004, about 14,000 were adopted. More than 7,000 were not.

The median minimum sentence for a woman in a New York prison is 36 months, which means that if her child is in foster care, her parental rights will almost certainly be threatened by ASFA, regardless of her ability or history as a parent. Case workers have the power to delay termination procedings if they can document a "compelling reason" why termination wouldn't be in the best interest of the child. The problem is that incarcerated parents face extreme challenges demonstrating the strength of their relationships with their kids to caseworkers, who have enormous caseloads and high turnover rates. Incarcerated women don't have the freedom to make phone calls when they want -- to their kids or their caseworkers -- or to arrange family visits. They're often not informed about family court hearings that involve their children's custody, or provided with legal counsel if they're unable to show up at court.

As a result, thousands of women who wanted to be mothers to their kids have lost the right even to have contact with them.

Which is crazy.

Nebraska, New Mexico and Colorado provide for ASFA exceptions for incarcerated parents. New York should, too. Now it's up to the Senate...


For more information, see the Correctional Association's report on Incarcerated Mothers.


Nell Bernstein's fastidiously researched book: All Alone in the World

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

the undead coyote

In December, New York’s Independent Budget Office reported that the city spent more than $250 million on its juvenile justice system in 2007. Three quarters of that money went to incarcerating young people in juvenile jails and prisons, where a 50-day stay costs New Yorkers about $30,000 per alleged juvenile delinquent.

In a glittering flash of bureaucratic genius, IBO analysts deduced that this may not be the best use of government funding.

The question is, will this realization be translated into any meaningful policy change? Study after study demonstrates that incarceration is far less effective at reducing crime than prevention programs that address the damage done by poverty & racism (see, but the nation's prison fever continues to burn. Like some gargantuan, undead Wile E. Coyote, the American logic of incarceration takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin', impervious to data, reason, common consenses or anything so soft-hearted as faith in human potential.

Disorienting as it is to navigate the vast distances between data, logic and criminal justice policy, one has to do it in order to understand the scope of incarceration (or its consequent damage) in America.

So, a couple more numbers from Down the Rabbit Hole:

The cost of keeping an inmate in NYS prison for one year is $36,835. In comparison, the cost of most drug free outpatient care runs between $2,700-$4,500 per person per year; and the cost of residential drug treatment is $17,000-$21,000 per participant per year.