Family Ties: The Fight to Reunite Families After Incarceration
BY: LILY VOSOUGHI
Brunilda Rivera is a 44-year old single mother starting over. After battling an ongoing addiction to drugs, she ended up serving 18-months in prison. But, within 6 months after her release in 2005 she had beaten the odds. She was sober, found a stable job, a home, and got back her 13-year-old son, Brandon. Little did she know that her greatest challenge was still left: rebuilding her relationship with her son.
“I felt like, oh my god the nightmare is finally over, now we can start building our relationship again,” says Rivera, reflecting back on the day she regained custody of her son. “It was hard and it was very trying, especially through ACS [Administration for Children’s Services], because it’s not easy to get your son back once your child is in the system.”
On any given day, over 1.5 million children in this country have a parent serving time in a state or federal prison. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the number of incarcerated women in the U.S. has more than doubled over the last 10 years, concluding that 75 percent of incarcerated women are mothers. The likelihood of reunification for children in foster care and their incarcerated mothers is slim; in fact, they are four times more likely than all other children to “age out of the system” than reunite with their parents.
“Our preference is always reunification with the biological parents, absolutely, but it’s up to us as a city child welfare agency that the child does end up with a family,” says Paula Fendall, Director of Children of Incarcerated Parents Program at NYC’s Administration of Children’s Services. “In which case there will be termination of parental rights, we would make sure that we find a stable loving family for them to be adopted by.”
Fendall admits that there is a lot that a parent has to do after getting out of prison to successfully reunite with their children. “Not only do they have to get housing and integrate back into society, but also go through the whole process with the foster care system itself,” she says. “It’s not an easy process.”
As one of the few to have a second chance at life with her child, Rivera’s next obstacle soon became getting to know her son all over again. “We had been apart from each other for a while and had been living totally separate lives,” says Rivera. “So when he actually came home, that’s when the test began.”
Each new day spent living together served as a constant reminder of their time apart and the separate experiences they each endured over the course of two years. As a mother of four, Rivera was facing her last chance to provide a stable and healthy environment suitable for raising her youngest son—a home she was unable to provide for her other children, now adults who all spent time in foster care due to their mother’s past drug addictions.
“Separation hurts the trust between a parent and a child,” says Tanya Krupat program director for the Osborne Association’s NY Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents, which offers programs, focusing on counseling children of formerly incarcerated mothers. “Once a child has experienced that separation, the fear that the parent will disappear again is also great.”
With making up for lost time, came the challenge of dealing with issues Brandon faced both before and after she was sent away. During his two years in foster care he experienced every mother’s nightmare. He was moved from one home to another, physically abused, and even starved while living with the last of his three foster families.
“She would lock me in the room with an extension cord and not feed me to punish me if I did something stupid,” says the 13-year old of his last foster mother. “She hit us all but she did the worst to me.”
Though he is open about discussing it now, it took time to get Brandon to talk about his experiences in foster care. “He didn’t even tell me about that until just about a year ago — I had no idea,” says Rivera. “He was worried about how I might react.”
Earning back Brandon’s trust, marked the next chapter in his mother’s life—a struggle that carried on long after the reunion. “He was angry and sometimes right now he’s still angry,” she says. “He would kick me, and hit me and he just didn’t know how to show his feelings.”
The root of child behavioral patterns such as anger and mistrust can be traced to the lack of parent accountability, common when a parent has a history of addiction, and feelings of abandonment that can come with that, according to Krupat, who specializes in rebuilding mother-child relationships after extended periods of separation.
“We have found that with cases where children have suffered abuse in foster care, their emotions remain bottled up until it begins to manifest in the form of anger and resentment,” says Krupat. “The best thing a parent can do for their child is to communicate and open up about their own individual experiences during their time apart, it can really help lift the burden for a child that’s been withholding information.”
Children often associate their parents with the situation of discomfort they have been forced into, according to child welfare experts . Most commonly children respond to separation by pushing their parents away, becoming emotionally inept and cold, others demonstrate excessively ‘clingy’ behavior and have a phobia of or experience anxiety with the thought of separation. “They blame the parent for not being there to save them from a traumatic experience,” says Krupat.
Being taken away from his mother in the middle of the night by police and suddenly put through the foster care system, the thought of permanent separation still serves as a fear for Brandon. Upon breaking her daily routine of picking Brandon up from school to seek medical attention for kidney stones, he reverts back to an apprehensive state, “I thought she was going to leave again…I started crying.”
For the past three years Rivera and Brandon have been attending individual counseling and recently started going to family therapy sessions together. “In therapy, he started mentioning things that bother him, like when I make him feel bad or worry,” says his mother. “He knows that this is a safe place and no one will try and take him away from me for talking about it.” It is here that Brandon has begun to vent to his mother in a healthy way.
Rivera and her son have come a long way. Mending their relationship has required steady communication, developing routines and of course, spending quality time together.
“It’s very difficult and it can become time consuming,” says Stacey Thompson, Associate to Coalition for Women Prisoners and representative of WORTH, an advocacy group for formerly incarcerated women. “How do you split up time between yourself and your child? They should have something in place for women, who don’t want to leave children alone while attending support group meetings, some type of daycare while mothers are trying to get reintegrate back into society.”
Nowadays, it is rare to find the reunited mother and son apart. With the exception of Brandon’s extracurricular activities, once the teenager is out of school, his mother is generally right by his side, trying to keep him on track while also focusing on bettering herself.
“I’m just pretty much a fighter, and I’m looking to better myself and my son’s life,” says Rivera. “The main relationships in my life right now are with God and my son.”