When a breadwinner faces prison, the kids suffer twice

I’ll tell you, straight away, I have no sympathy for child abusers. Harming a defenseless person is unspeakable, not to mention a burden on the rest of us. According to Safe Horizon, child abuse is a $124 billion dollar problem and survivors of child abuse are 30% more likely to commit violent crime. When you hurt a child, he or she carries that damage and it manifests into all sorts of crap and behaviors that affect everybody else down the road. Children don’t deserve to be abused, society doesn’t deserve to clean up the mess and child abusers should be punished justly.

Now, let me tell you about my friend Amy.

Amy is a stay-at-home-mom to four kids. She’s very much in love with her husband, Mark, who happens to have diabetes. I never realized what a hold insulin has over a person until I was driving behind a swerving truck on Lake Shore Drive once when suddenly the driver jumped out, rolled onto the pavement and his empty truck went on to crash into the concrete railing. I called 911 and waited, assuming the man was drunk. Nope. He was simply off his diabetes medication. So on this particular day of the story I’m about to tell you, note that Amy’s husband had skipped two meals and thus, two doses of his meds due to starting a new, second job.

One night a few months ago, Amy’s kids were driving her nuts. One of their sons has autism and after a day of shenanigans, she left the kids with their dad and booked it to the grocery store for some alone time. You’ve had those days. I have them all the time. As Amy enjoyed her hour soaking in the delight of the produce section, her hungry, unmedicated diabetic husband got frustrated with the four kids teeming about, and he snapped. He yanked one kid off the couch and threw him on the floor. There. Now you know.

Mark is also an alcoholic. How much was he drinking on this particular night? In Amy’s words,

“He drank ‘some’. I use that term because I have no way to know how much. He acted sober.”

When Amy came home, she was annoyed that only one kid was ready for bed, so she took over. Teeth. Pee. Bath. One of the boys was upset, but no one in the house really said what happened. Amy did notice there were some red marks on her son, but he didn’t seem phased and it was late. Kids get hurt all the time. With everyone tired, they hit the sack and the next day went on as normal. Lunches were packed, the kids shuffled off to school.

By the next day, the red marks on the child’s skin deepened in color. They were now much more visible. Someone at the school became concerned and called child protective services. The police arrived first at the school, and then at Amy’s house for questioning. CPS escorted their son to the ER for an exam.

“Everyone [from Child Protective Services] talked about how they were there to ‘keep families together’ at the beginning,” Amy said, “but it quickly became obvious they wanted Mark dead.”

Amy was pressured to get an order of protection from her husband and that was the beginning of the end of normal.

“[The order] didn’t allow any contact between Mark and the kids (even via phone) for months. My son who was involved in all this is still not allowed contact. They miss their Daddy. My son sometimes says he feels this is his fault. He is in therapy. I make sure to frame it as Daddy was sick and they took him away to get him help not because my son told on him.”

The state of Virginia takes a hard line stance on child abuse, thus the case was pursued as a felony instead of a misdemeanor. After a brief trial, Mark was found guilty and now faces 2-10 years in prison. They are awaiting sentencing in July.

This story isn’t really about Mark, though. It’s about Amy and the kids who are now on the brink of homelessness. The father supported the family working two jobs and Amy is the caretaker. She stayed home due to simple math: childcare for four children including one with special needs is extraordinarily expensive, and still is. She now has to find work that is flexible enough to deal with their son’s issues with autism but one that pays enough to cover their expenses.

“Food stamps and emergency financial help only go so far and get reduced once you find employment. I can get social security payments because of my son’s disabilities but that is a long process and leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Kind of like using my kid as a meal ticket, ya know?

We are working to find housing but it is hard. Organizations help those who are already homeless first. I just feel like the system pushed us into this and then abandoned us. If I had not sent our son to school that day and forced Mark into rehab, we might have been better off in some ways. There are no perfect answers here.”

Would probation, an anger management program, parenting classes and forced rehab have been a better solution for this family than prison for their breadwinner? If prison is the right answer, where are the fixes to foster care? Where is the aid to families on the brink of homelessness, not just for those already there? Where is the subsidized childcare to support women reentering the workforce? Child abuse is nothing to scoff at. However when a fully present, contributing parent is locked away in prison, the children suffer twice and new problems unfold with no easy answers.

With 2.4 million people in American prisons, many families are affected by this very scenario. In fact, Sesame Street made a special incarceration episode and activity kit to help children of prisoners cope with their feelings of loss.

And what about after the parent’s prison sentence has been paid? It turns out, every felony is a life sentence. People with felony records have a hard time finding employment and don’t qualify for many social services. With kids to provide for, this puts families of felons in a very tight pinch.

Maybe it’s time to reexamine how we treat felons and focus on the bigger picture of the families who ultimately suffer.

If that was depressing, you can now enjoy these pictures of cats wearing boots.


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