On March 7, 2000, my father was sent to prison.
I thought I remembered everything about that morning. I had a vivid picture of the six of us — my mother, three siblings, father and me — sitting closely in the living room, huddled together on our maroon and gold striped sofa, lit by the early light peering through half-closed blinds. I remembered my mother's prayer, for the "hedge of protection" she asked God to send us, to surround our family and our father. I remember the quiet in that room as we sat still, anticipating the impending moment when he'd be escorted away.
I thought I remembered him leaving.
Ten years later, I was told the rest of that story: I chased after the police car, pleaded with the police officer to let my father stay home, then chased them halfway to the corner store. As much as I remember about that morning, this is not a part of my consciousness. My 11-year old brain likely determined that this was too traumatic a memory to keep — and so I blocked it out.
I wish I could say my story is unique. Unfortunately, it's common. Nearly 3 million little boys and little girls are literally or figuratively chasing after police cars. Twenty percent of these children witness their parent's being taken away. Yet the collective trauma of that experience — the ensuing years of struggle, stigma and shame these children and families face as a result of incarceration — is not part of our collective consciousness. As a society, we have trained our institutions to remember the crime and punishment, yet we forget the collateral devastation millions of families face when a parent is incarcerated. For most of us, the story ends when that police car pulls away, and we fail to consider the family that is left behind. We fail to support the children swept up in one individual's choices and the impact of the system charged with holding him or her accountable.
This isn't about disputing justice. However, the same state that says "your dad has to go away for 10 years" has a moral responsibility to then ask the family members left behind, "and what do you need?" The day after my father's incarceration, my mother became a single-parent tasked with raising four children on a secretary's income. We were in danger of losing our home. The lights were routinely cut off. When the phone was connected, bill collectors would call. As a child, I was relentlessly bullied at school. I was ostracized by my church community. I was told by a parent that I was no longer welcome in her home because of the "influence" I'd have on her daughter — despite being a straight-A student. I didn't have a case worker to help me through those hurts. My school records weren't flagged to indicate that I was a child who needed extra support. I was a little girl, navigating a big trauma — without an awareness or a social structure in place to mitigate the risk of my life becoming a second tragedy.
As we reassess our deeply flawed criminal justice system, we must consider and confront its full costs. Broken laws shouldn't lead to broken families, yet they do. Our public policies should serve to protect the vulnerable and voiceless. The children of incarcerated parents are just that. I am here today because of the strength and heroism of my mother and grandmother. I am here today in spite of the system that forgot. Most children — millions of children — in my situation are not so lucky. As voters and as policymakers, as friends and as neighbors, it is our responsibility to remember them.
Meryam Bouadjemi is a filmmaker and an Open Society Institute Fellow. She will be documenting the experiences of children and families at the Family League of Baltimore's upcoming conference, "Assessing the Implications of Parental Incarceration on Families" on June 29th through July 1. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.