Republished from Opinion - USA Today
Aug. 25, 2017
More than half of imprisoned adults have minor children. And those kids often suffer trauma, end up in the system, or both.
Forced into the system
I was 4 years old when I was removed from my mother's custody, but she had been cycling through the criminal justice system since I was born. I went to stay with my Aunt Pattie, the sister of the man believed to be my father. Aunt Pattie held judgments about my mom's ability to parent. Consequently, I went for years without hearing my mother’s voice. Not seeing or speaking with my mother had a profound impact on me — and I resented my aunt and acted out. By the time I was 11, my rebellious nature proved too much for Aunt Pattie, and she turned me over to the custody of New York state.
And so my entanglement with the foster care system began.
I spent four years with a family in Brownsville, N.Y. Perhaps because the husband had himself served time in prison before finding God through Pentecostalism, the couple understood the importance of a mother in her child’s life. They made sure I visited my mom in prison and spoke with her on the phone — after years of being without her.
Eventually, I ended up in the home of a woman who was committed to making sure I had a strong sense of myself as a black woman. A recovering addict, she understood the criminal justice system firsthand and tried to provide the support I needed in my life. She had a vast library of books, and on the first day I arrived in her home, I was told to choose one. I picked Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the story of a black slave mother making heartbreaking choices to keep her family together. It was the first time I saw my shattered family experience through the lens of racial justice. Its message pushes me to this day.
My teenage years and early 20s were riddled with instability, but I eventually found a stable home and a steady job. In 2008, when I was 24, I got my GED. In 2012, I earned my bachelor’s in English from City College of New York. I have worked hard for a master's in social work from Hunter College. My story has a happy ending. Unfortunately, my brother Sequan has not fared as well.
The abuse of incarcerated people at the hands of guards frequently goes unnoticed and unpunished. But Sequan was beaten so badly by Rikers Island corrections officers that the abusers went to trial.
Sequan has been caught up in the criminal justice system and struggled to find his way out of it ever since. I believe that the separation from our mother and all that Sequan experienced during his own foster care journey led him down the path to prison.
Families struggle with mental health issues
The fact is that family members of the incarcerated suffer a lot. Families have reported a variety of mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress, according to a 2015 report by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together and Research Action Design. About half of the family members attributed a health issue to their loved one's incarceration. That takes a toll on communities.
Today, I help families deal with the collateral damage of having an incarcerated family member by advocating for services for the families of incarcerated people. I’m also the lead organizer of a 19-day march of these families, from New York City to Albany. The March for Justice is a collective effort by family members, formerly incarcerated people and a host of other concerned community members that will step off in Harlem on Saturday to shine a light on the abuses in prisons and to advocate for supporting family relationships.
I’ll be marching alongside a mother who has a 20-year-old son with mental health problems at Greene Correctional Facility in Coxsackie, N.Y. She says he was placed in solitary confinement for 45 days without any explanation. We have found no record, no citation that states a reason for putting a young man with mental health issues in conditions that cause mental disease in healthy people.
Before being put in solitary confinement, her son told her that the guards had been taunting him. In prison, the sharp edges of soda cans have been used by incarcerated people to slit their own wrists. This woman's son said a guard or guards repeatedly held a can up to the bars of his cell, the subtext being that a guard could cut him and say he did it himself.
I’m marching for her son. I’m marching for Sequan, who was beaten within an inch of his life. I’m marching for the countless children, parents, brothers and sisters in families ripped apart by the criminal justice system. I’m marching so our voices will be heard and the criminal justice system will be improved.
We need our leaders to stop the systemic abuse of people on both sides of the bars. Who’s with me?
Tiffany McFadden was a ward of New York state (Office of Children and Family Services — OCFS) for 17 years. She is the project director of the CUNY-HRA (Human Resource Administration) Initiative — CUNY Research Foundation. Tiffany is also the logistical lead for the March for Justice and a volunteer for the Alliance of Families for Justice.