Coping with life when mom is behind bars

When we see prisoners, we often only see their crimes and not the children they leave behind. That's especially true when it comes to mothers. We take a look at how children are affected by crimes they did not commit.

How Toni got involved with drugs

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Children growing up with mom in prison

Chapter 1: Invisible Prisoners

Invisible Prisoners

Mondays are a day most people would rather skip, but that's not the case for 7-year-old Taylor of Tampa. It's the only day of the week she gets to communicate with her mother.

Taylor is like nearly 6,000 other children in Hillsborough County, and 65,000 across the state of Florida who have a parent in either prison or jail. Her mother, Toni, has been in prison since Taylor was just three years old.

"It hurts me very much. It hurts me bad," said Taylor. I can't even go to sleep without her."

Taylor's grandmother, 59-year-old Bonnie, is raising Taylor in the meantime. She takes more than 50 medications a day to treat her chronic pain and other illnesses, has no car, and survives only on a small widow's pension.

"I been sick a long time," she said. "It's hard. We just do what we have to do to survive. Whatever it takes."

However, despite her circumstances, Bonnie is determined to give Taylor the best childhood possible.

"My grandma is doing very good," said Taylor. "Everything she have given me is love. If I don't have my mom, I still have my grandma in my heart."

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To keep up with Taylor's journey, follow @bondsbeyondbars on Instagram 

Infographic #1


Chapter 2: Race and Parental Incarceration

Race and Parental Incarceration

Like Taylor, many of the children who experience parental incarceration are African American. According to a recent report by Child Trends, black children are almost twice as likely to have a parent behind bars as white children. Statistics show 11.5 percent of black children have had a parent behind bars at some point in their life. That's compared to 6 percent of white children. That number jumps even higher to 13.6 percent for black children between the ages of 12 and 17.


Chapter 3: Life for Taylor: Building Broken Bonds

Life for Taylor: Building Broken Bonds



To keep up with Taylor's journey, follow @bondsbeyondbars on Instagram 

The video visits are made possible through Tampa-based Abe Brown Ministries, a Christian organization that works with prisoners, ex-offenders and their families. Its family reunification division helps 25 families with children like Taylor maintain the bond that's often broken when a parent goes behind bars.Taylor's mom has been gone from her life for four years, and the maintaining the natural bond between the two has been difficult. While Taylor is able to see her mother, it's usually only through special video visitations that last just 15 minutes, once a week.

"We do the visits and try to be able to have the children see their mothers as much as possible," said Lasandra McGrew, a licensed clinical social worker who provides contracted services to Abe Brown Ministries. However she says, "they do have limitations. They can't reach out and hug mom or touch mom. They aren't able to have an exciting day and be able to run home and be able to share with mom what happened in that day."

Taylor's grandmother realizes this, but knows some contact is better than none at all.

"I always tell Taylor, 'I'm not your mother, I'm your grandmother,'" she said. "I want her to know her mama. I want her to never forget her mama face or never forget her mama voice. That's why I try to make it that Taylor be there every Monday to hear her mama voice, and to tell her mama how she feel, and to encourage her mama to let her mama know that we are waiting on you to come home."

While the video visitations and in-person visits help, Toni still feels like her bond with Taylor is damaged.

"When I have my [video] visits, she don't really like give me eye contact," said Bonnie. "And I be asking her sometimes, 'Are you ashamed of your mama?'"

Taylor says no, but Toni says she isn't sure.

"She be like shy when she talk to me. And then when we have our physical visits when Abe Brown Ministries bring her up here, she talk to me, but she be like everywhere else sometimes…because usually she play with the kids and everybody and other kids that be there," said Toni.

Experts say the detachment Toni feels is common. "Some children have a lot of difficulty with attachment, bonding. Not just with the mother, but also with people, because in those early developmental years when they're supposed to be learning to attach and to bond, very often, that does not occur," said McGrew.

Chapter 4: Mom's Past

Mom's Past


Taylor's mom, 34-year-old Toni, has been in and out of both state and federal prison most of her adult life. She is currently locked away on drug charges at the Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala.

"I sold marijuana, I sold crack, I sold ecstasy pills," said Toni of her drug-dealing past. "I don't even know why I chose to do illegal stuff to make money when I had other ways to make money."

Toni says she used to do hair for a living, and was also skilled as a home decorator. However, the lure of quick money drew her in with the wrong crowds when she was just a teenager.

"I started smoking marijuana when I was probably around 14," she said, adding that she started selling drugs around the same time. "I was young. I was like sneaking doing it."

Toni says her mom, Bonnie, never knew.

"I used to want to make instant money," she said. "You get somebody some drugs, and make a thousand-something dollars right there in just one, two minutes. I don't know. Maybe it was just some type of thrill I used to get out of it and I really don't know why I did it because I'm against people who do drugs…it's kind of like contradicting myself, but I really don't know how to explain it."

Toni's regrets over involvment with drugs

Chapter 5: Mothers Behind Bars

Mothers behind bars

Toni represents a growing number of mothers finding themselves locked up. According to Child Trends, there are at least 120,000 mothers behind bars across the country, and the group says the number of incarcerated mothers in state and federal prisons has doubled since 1991.

Infographic #2


Child Trends says this presents serious problems for the children involved, as most mothers are custodial parents when they are set away.

This is the case for this family, left to piece life together after it was shattered by Toni's decisions, forcing her daughter and mother to become invisible prisoners, paying for a crime they did not commit.

"My mama, she have to raise [Taylor] on behalf of me, and that's not fair because she didn't have that child. I had my daughter," said Toni.

But Toni's mom doesn't see raising Taylor as a burden, even though it's not easy. "I been sick a long time, and when Toni left…if Taylor would have been taken from me, I think I would have already been gone to heaven," said Bonnie. "Taylor just gives me so much inspiration, and she gives me hope, and we pray for one another, we happy, we love on each other."

Like Toni, Child Trends says most mothers who are behind bars are there on non-violent charges like "drug, property, or public-order offenses."

And when it comes to parent-child visits, Child Trends says many families struggle because women's prisons are often farther away from their families than men's prisons, making it hard for caretakers like Bonnie to take children to see their mothers.

The Lowell Correctional Institution where Toni is locked up is 100 miles away from Taylor.

"We don't have no family, no transportation," said Bonnie.

Taylor only sees her mother in-person about four times a year, and that's only thanks to the help of Abe Brown Ministries, which coordinates quarterly visits for all the families it works with in its reunification program.

"I am so grateful for Abe Brown Ministries for having this opportunity for me and my grandbaby, because without Abe Brown Ministries, this would be impossible for us."

Chapter 6: Beating the Odds

Beating the Odds

When a mother is arrested and taken away from her child, the impact on that child is enormous. According to Child Trends, children with incarcerated mothers often experience "depression, anxiety and rule-breaking behavior, and are more likely to drop out of school, be suspended, be absent from school and do poorly academically."

Bonnie tries to do everything she can to shield her grandchild from these negative consequences, and Toni says she is confident Taylor won't stray from the upright path her mother is showing her. "She got a good, strong family support system while I'm here. They try to keep her doing a lot of activities," she said.

Experts say while the negative effects a child experiences while their parent is incarcerated can lead them down a troubled road, not all children are destined to repeat a cycle of crime. "Many of these children can and do grow up to be successful adults," said McGrew. There are so many other factors that go into whether or not these children experience generational incarceration because so many of these children grow up in loving homes…many of these children do grow up to have productive lives."

"Not every child that has an incarcerated parent becomes an incarcerated person," said McGrew. "And it's worth it to invest in these children."

Chapter 7: Reuniting


Toni still has about two years before she'll be free, and she says when she's released, she's leaving her past behind. "I'm done with street life." she said. "Being locked up, period, it's just a waste of my life. And it took for me to get in my 30s to realize it. It's not worth it."

And if she could say one thing to Taylor to show her remorse: "I just apologize for not being there for her, and I love her and I just can't wait to get home and be able to show it to her."

Apology accepted.

"I love my mom," said Taylor. "And I know she loves me, too."

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