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The Former “Desperado’s Wife” Confronts the Pain of Kids With Incarcerated Parents – by Amy Friedman

July 29th, 2013 by Celeste Fremon


by Amy Friedman

When I first met Dennis Danziger over a decade ago, I was reluctant to tell him anything about my first husband. Finally, after Dennis and I had known each other for a couple of months and as we were falling in love, I confessed my secret: that my ex-husband had been in prison for murder when we met and married and was now serving a lifetime parole. Dennis, who is a writer and teacher at Venice High School and is an exceptionally compassionate, accepting person, initially had the reaction I had over the years come to expect.

He expressed disbelief and fear—for his safety and for his children’s.

That fear infuriated me. We spent hours talking as I tried to educate him about prisoners. To begin with, that they are human beings not caricatures, I told him. My ex and I had separated amicably and his sole interest was in living a quiet, law-abiding life, that he had no interest in Dennis and certainly not Dennis’s children.

Still, Dennis struggled with what clearly felt to him as the threatening shadow of my past, but we continued to talk about about his preconceptions and fears. Then I finally introduced Dennis to my stepdaughters, who were by then in their twenties, he fell completely in love with them.

His relationship with the girls was the window through which Dennis began to understand the prejudice and punishment so many prisoners’ families and friends face for having committed no crime; the only thing the girls (and I) had done was love someone who had done something terrible and was locked up and paying for it.

And there was another change meeting my step daughters brought to my new husband. Until he met me, Dennis assumed he did not know anyone—at least not well—who was related to a prison inmate. It turned out he was wrong. When he started paying closer attention to hints dropped by his students in stories they were writing, he began to suspect what they were not writing. Over time, he discovered that in nearly every class he taught–first at Palisades Charter High and later at Venice High–he had at least one student who was coping with the heartbreak of having a parent inside, or a friend, or a brother or sister or cousin. The students ranged across ethnic, socioeconomic, and racial boundaries.

Quietly, carefully, my kind (and newly informed) English teacher husband helped his students to tell begin to tell these stories.

According to a 2010 study, one in 28 children in this country have a parent in prison (two thirds of whom are in for non-violent offenses). Given the vast numbers we imprison in this country, this fact is not surprising. Since 1980 the US prison population has grown by 790%. We have the largest prison population in the world, with 2.5 million men and women in prison and more than seven million on some sort of probation or parole. Yet, while there is a lot of conversation in California and around the nation about the cost/benefits of our hyper-aggressive incarceration policy, there is too little discussion about the collateral effect that same policy has on the children (and siblings and friends) of those in prison.

For a long time after Dennis and I married in 2002, we thought and talked about those kids. Then one day in early 2013 several things happened, all right in a row, that forced us to stop merely thinking, and start acting:

First, last December I published a memoir, Desperado’s Wife, about my life when I was married to a man inside.

On the day the book was released, my eldest stepdaughter, who is in her 30s now, called to tell me she never wanted to speak to me again. I wept, of course. But I also understood her anger. She spent her entire life hiding this one fact of her life—that her dad had been a prisoner—and she didn’t want to be outed. She didn’t want to remember the families who wouldn’t let her visit their homes when she was young, or the misery and insults of prison visits, or the loneliness and fear and prejudice she faced throughout her childhood and early adulthood.

A few days after she called, Dennis got a letter from one of his favorite former students. When he was 17, John was arrested for shooting someone in the shoulder. The victim was in and out of the hospital that night. But to our horror and sorrow, John was tried as an adult and sentenced to serve 22 years in state prison.

Dennis had recently visited him in New Folsom, and now John was writing to ask Dennis to share his cautionary tale with his students, which he did. When Dennis came home from school, the day when he recounted John’s story, he told me about a miracle that had occurred. Dennis had just finished relating to the kids what had happened to John, ending with, “So a few weeks ago I went to New Folsom to visit him…”

As he was talking, a student named Kylie lifted her head from her desk, and raised her hand. Dennis was stunned. School had been in session for 26 weeks, and prior to that day, Kylie had never said a word in class. But on this day, she began to talk.

“My brother’s at New Folsom…” she said, her tone at first tentative. “I visit him…” As she spoke, she seemed to gain confidence. Kylie kept talking. And talking. It was as if that word Folsom had unleashed a torrent of memories she suddenly was able to share with the people in this classroom and, once started, the flood of words had a force of their own.

In class, high school students generally do not speak at length, and Dennis wondered if he ought to stop her, but the kids were rapt. They wanted to hear Kylie’s story, and Kylie clearly needed to tell it. So he stayed silent and listened, and when she was finished her face had changed—her eyes were bright, the habitual strain in her expression had washed away.

After Dennis told me of the Kylie miracle, I said, “We should start a club for these kids.”

“Let’s do it,” he said.

We began making plans.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in families, prison, prison policy, Public Health | 3 Comments »

Families Locked Out of Juvenile Justice Process, High School Sports Participation Reduces Suspensions and Serious Crime…and More

September 11th, 2012 by Taylor Walker


Justice for Families released a report Monday analyzing the areas in which the juvenile justice system lets kids down by not actively involving families in each step of their contact with the justice system. It also lays out a “Blueprint for Youth Justice Transformation” with solutions to specific problems within the system, including the lack of parental involvement.

The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange’s Kaukab Jhumra Smith has more info on the report. Here’s how it opens:

Every day, nearly 50,000 children are forced to spend the night away from their families because of their involvement in the juvenile justice system, according to a new report.

It’s not as if these youth have no one to care for them. Families of young detainees care deeply about their children, but often feel helpless when their children get into trouble — especially in the face of high adult incarceration rates, zero-tolerance school policies and reduced social services, which can make it difficult for families to offer support. Add to this a juvenile court system that practically shuts out family members from receiving or offering input, and the feelings of frustration and helplessness multiply.

These are the findings of Families Unlocking Futures: Solutions to the Crisis in Juvenile Justice, a report released Monday that offers a blueprint for reforms that involve family members at every step when a child gets into trouble, whether at school or in the juvenile justice system. It’s based on the belief that timely and appropriate intervention, with the help of families, can prevent the inexorable march for some children from school to juvenile court, and ease their transition from detention back into society.

Such detention doesn’t just take an economic and mental toll on detainees and their families; it also affects taxpayers and state budgets. Each day a youth spent in a juvenile facility cost taxpayers $241 in 2007, the report finds. Multiplied by 64,558 youth, states across the county spent a total of $5.7 billion for detention that year.

Family members surveyed for the report said they frequently felt ignored at proceedings in juvenile courts, overlooked by probation staff and shut out of their children’s lives in correctional facilities, even when it was time for their children to be released.


High schools that have high participation rates in sports programs see fewer suspensions and major crimes on campus, according to a recent report from the University of Michigan. (WitnessLA previously posted on a similar planned study to evaluate the effect of sports programs on kids in juvie detention facilities like Camp Kilpatrick.)

Here’s a clip from U-M’s article on the report:

The research includes violent behavior and attempted rape among major crimes, and suspensions involving five or more days out of school.

“Sport participation opportunities within a school might operate to slow down or stop more major forms of delinquency within a school environment from occurring,” said Philip Veliz, a postdoctoral fellow at the U-M Substance Abuse Research Center and the study’s lead author.

He co-wrote the research with Sohaila Shakib, an associate professor of sociology at California State University-Dominguez Hills.

The suspension rates also were reduced in schools with more sports participation opportunities, but this could be related to violent crimes being more likely to result in a long-term suspension, Veliz said.

The study can be found in full (but, unfortunately, behind a pay wall) in the current issue of Sociological Spectrum.


A new report from the Sentencing Project details how the Affordable Care Act could impact corrections and public safety. Here’s a clip:

Expanded Health Care Coverage — The Affordable Care Act gives states the option of expanding Medicaid eligibility and makes prevention, early intervention, and treatment of mental health problems and substance use essential health benefits. In states that opt to expand Medicaid coverage, the Federal government will cover 100% of expenditures for the newly eligible population from 2014 to 2016, with the amount of federal funds decreasing yearly to 90% by 2020 and thereafter.

Reducing Recidivism — Because of the role mental health and substance abuse problems play in behaviors that lead to incarceration and recidivism, the Affordable Care Act could help states reduce the number of people cycling through the criminal justice system.

Addressing Racial Disparities – The new legislation may contribute to reducing racial disparities in incarceration that arise from disparate access to treatment.


Celeste appeared on Warren Olney’s Which Way LA? Monday night, along with Miriam Krinsky, Executive Director of the Los Angeles Citizens Commission on Jail Violence, to discuss Friday’s jails commission meeting and the commission investigators’ findings thus far. (Celeste’s story on the Friday hearing can be found here.)

Posted in criminal justice, families, health care, juvenile justice, LA County Board of Supervisors, LASD | No Comments »

News Conference Addresses Issues Raised by Alesia Thomas Death, Family Reunification Week…and More

September 10th, 2012 by Taylor Walker


LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas called a press conference Friday regarding the in-custody death of Alesia Thomas. (WitnessLA’s previous post on Alesia Thomas can be found here.) Supervisor Ridley-Thomas was joined by Phillip Browning, director of LA County Department of Children and Family Services, and LAPD officials to reassure parents that there should be no fear of repercussions for seeking help when they are unable to care for their kids.

“Anytime an incident like this takes place it is not simply a matter of investigation, it is a matter of review of policy to make sure that whatever factors might have contributed to the tragic results are not repeated,” said Ridley-Thomas.

KPCC’s Erika Aguilar has the story. Here’s a clip:

“We do not wish to in any way cause anyone to feel that they should be reluctant to take advantage the safe houses in the city or to take advantage of the DCFS [Department of Children and Family Services] office,” said Ridley-Thomas.


LAPD Police Commissioner Andrea Ordin said the police department would redouble partnership efforts with DCFS and increase training so that all officers are aware of the county’s services for parents.

Officials encouraged parents to use the Child Protection Hotline, 800-540-4000, if they need any help with children.

“No parent should believe that they are in this by themselves,” said Phillip Browning, director of LA County Department of Children and Family Services.

L.A. County participates in the Safely Surrendered Baby Law, which allows parents to give up an unwanted infant without fear of arrest or prosecution for abandonment as long as the baby has not been abused and is dropped off at a hospital or fire station within three days of birth.

The law does not apply to older children, but Browning said L.A. city police and fire departments are willing to take on those kinds of situations.


While we’re on the subject, LA County Supervisors have declared Sept. 10-14 “Family Reunification Week.” The celebration is in recognition of families’ safe reunions with their children and and all of the parents, caregivers, social workers, and organizations that make reunification possible, after children have been initially removed to the county’s care. (We’re glad the Supervisors are paying attention to these issues, and want to continue to help families grow healthier and able to become whole again.)

The Paramus Post’s Mel Fabrikant has the info. Here’s a clip:

On Tuesday, September 11th, six “Family Reunification Heroes,” a group of parents, social workers, and organizations that have done an exemplary job in supporting the safe return of children to their homes and families, will be honored with a special scroll presentation by Chairman Yaroslavsky’s Children’s Deputy Lisa Mandel at the Hall of Administration.

On Thursday, September 13th, a Family Reunification Symposium, “Families First: The Road that Leads Back Home,” will feature Chairman Zev Yaroslavsky, Judge Michael Nash and Philip L. Browning, Director of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). The symposium will include a lively panel discussion with parents, caregivers, former foster youth, social workers and court attorneys on pertinent family reunification issues. The most emotional part of the program will undoubtedly be three families sharing their personal stories on how they reunited with their children. Parents in Partnership, a DCFS program that utilizes parents who have successfully navigated the Dependency Court system to reunify with their children and are now coaching other families on how to do the same, will discuss their successful program.

On Friday, September 14th, media is invited to attend a press conference at Juvenile Court where reporters can witness a unique event, similar in format to National Adoption Day, as court officially terminates the cases of eight families whose parents have successfully reunified with their children. These eight families represent over 3,000 families that reunify with their children each year.


A bill to prevent the shackling of pregnant prisoners awaits Gov. Brown’s decision, once again, after passing unanimously through legislature. Brown vetoed a previous version of the bill, AB 2530, last year.

The ACLU’s Alicia M. Walters has the story on AB 2530. Here’s a clip:

This year marks the third attempt to get a signature on a bipartisan, unanimously supported bill in California (AB 2530) that would ban the practice of putting incarcerated pregnant women in dangerous shackles. Similar bills have passed two previous legislative sessions with overwhelming support from both political parties, only to be vetoed. Opposition from the powerful law enforcement lobby surely played a role in these vetoes. But we have persevered, and this year we’ve been successful in keeping law enforcement neutral. While we’re happy with this progress, we still need the Governor to sign the bill.

We’ve kept at this for several years for a fundamental reason: Shackling is dangerous for a woman and her baby. It is well-documented that shackling pregnant women causes them to fall. Falls could cut off oxygen to the fetus and could lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, or fatally premature birth.

By the way, Gov. Jerry has until Sept. 30th to sign (or veto) another bill that WitnessLA strongly favors, AB 1270, that would open up media access to in-person interviews with prisoners. If approved, the bill would help shed light on areas of the corrections system that need reform. (For more info, check out our previous post on AB 1270 here.)

Posted in ACLU, CDCR, DCFS, Edmund G. Brown, Jr. (Jerry), families, LA County Board of Supervisors, LAPD | 1 Comment »

Kids Visit Locked-Up Fathers, Race Matters in Juvie Sentencing…and More

June 1st, 2012 by Taylor Walker


LA’s Center for Restorative Justice Works is transporting over 1,000 kids to see their incarcerated dads to celebrate Father’s Day this year. The program, Get On the Bus, will facilitate the father-child reunions at six men’s institutions throughout the state over a period of fifteen days.

MSNBC has the press release. Here’s a clip:

Executive Director Kathy Culpepper said, “Get On The Bus exists to unite children with their parents in prison. Distance is the number one reason these children have been unable to see their parents. Most parents in California prisons are incarcerated more than 100 miles away from their children. These children miss their parents terribly and need to know that they are not abandoned. Regular visitation helps to decrease the negative impacts of parental incarceration on the children. For many of these children, this is the only time during the year that they will see their father.”

Approximately 200,000 children in California have an incarcerated parent and live with relatives or are in foster care, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

As you may remember, WitnessLA has posted about this genuinely cool program before for Mother’s Day. You can check it out here.


Stanford researchers concluded in a recent study that white Americans are more likely to support heavier sentences if they imagine the juvie defendant to be black. (Really.)

The National Journal’s Doris Nhan has the story. Here’s a clip:

The study, conducted with about 650 white Americans, looked at whether switching a juvenile defendant’s racial description to either black or white would change whether the participant was more likely to find the juvenile to be responsible and to support a harsher punishment. The researchers found that it did.

Participants who had read “black” were significantly more likely to say that the individual was responsible and thus more supportive of a life in prison without parole sentence, said Aneeta Rattan, lead author of the study and a post-doctoral research scholar at the university.

“Using this one word to cue race got people to change their attitudes and perceptions to policy regarding juveniles,” Rattan said, later adding, “We really have to ask how much bigger that effect can be in the real world.”


The Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth has presented a new piece of federal legislation that, if passed, would make it easier for schools to release critical education-related information to foster kids’ social workers. (We want to respect kids’ privacy, but foster care agencies are acting in lieu of parents, so it shouldn’t be this difficult for them to get information from schools.)

The Chronicle of Social Change’s Daniel Heimpel has the story. Here’s a clip:

For experts, advocates and administrators, the new legislation is an opportunity to change the way foster care and education work together towards the shared goal of improving educational outcomes for foster youth. Further, the A+ Act would allow for inter-agency data sharing, which experts agree would increase the chance of successful interventions to improve the dismaying educational outcomes students in foster care face.

A comprehensive fact sheet on educational outcomes for foster youth, compiled by the National Workgroup on Foster Care and Education, provides a clear picture of just how poorly these students perform compared to their peers. About half of students in foster care completed high school by age 18, compared with 70 percent of the general population, according to a review of multiple studies.  And research shows college completion rates for foster youth range anywhere from one to nine percent, far lower than the census estimate of 28 percent of people in the general population who hard earned at least a four-year degree by age 25.

“When are we going to quit talking about stats and start implementing the solutions that put our [foster] kids on par with their peers,” says Mary Cagle, the Director of Children’s Legal Services for Florida’s Department of Children and Families.

Posted in CDCR, children and adolescents, criminal justice, Education, families, Foster Care, juvenile justice, prison, racial justice, Reentry, Sentencing | 1 Comment »

Abusive Spousal Support….Realignment Panic…& the GOP on Criminal Justice

November 11th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon


What is this judge thinking? ABC news has the report. Here are the details:

She was forced to have sex with him, and now she’s being forced to pay his bills.

Crystal Harris of Carlsbad, Calif., had been financially supporting her unemployed, abusive husband Shawn Harris for years. But after he sexually assaulted her in 2008, she took him to court.

The jury heard a damning audiotape of the attack secretly recorded by Crystal Harris, and her husband was convicted of forced oral copulation.

Even so, in 2010, the year their divorce became finalized, he requested spousal support. The judge awarded him $1,000 a month, and also asked Crystal Harris to pay $47,000 of her ex-husband’s legal fees from the divorce proceedings.


Sheriff Baca says the County’s Jails could be full in a month, so some prisoners may serve half sentences. He also said he will look at community-based alternatives to incarceration for some offenders (a strategy that other states have employed successfully, and CA should have embraced years ago).

The LA Times Andrew Blankstein and Robert Faturechi have the story.

Here’s a clip:

The state’s new prison law, which establishes a practice known as realignment, is expected to send as many as 8,000 offenders who would normally go to state prisons into the L.A. County Jail system in the next year.

Currently, defendants awaiting trial account for 70% of the jail population, but Sheriff Lee Baca said that might need to drop to 50%. The department is studying a major expansion of its electronic monitoring and home detention programs to keep track of inmates who are released.

Baca said the department is also developing a new risk-assessment system designed to better identify which inmates are the best candidates to leave the jails.

Additionally, the department is looking at ways to channel more offenders into education and substance abuse programs rather than jail.

In the panic over releasing inmates, did anyone notice the small, interesting fact embedded in this story: namely that 70 percent of those in jail are not there because of convictions, but because they are awaiting trial. And a big chunk of the folks who make up that 70 percent are locked up, not because they’re a hideous threat to public safety or a ghastly flight risk, but simply because they don’t have the money or the collateral to make bail. In other words, the issue isn’t so much criminogenic as it is fiscal.

So-o-oooo, instead, of keeping all those economically-challenged folks in the county lock-up, for those who qualify, we could use electronic monitoring or some related ATI (alternatives to incarceration) system, which other jurisdictions have been employing with good results. (But, hell, why be logical and forward thinking when hysteria is SO much more fun!)


Steve Yoder writing for the Crime Report suggests that some Republicans have come farther on sentencing reform and other criminal justice reforms than Democrats.

Here’s a clip:

To understand the distance that the Republican Party has traveled on criminal justice, observe the record of Texas’ longest-serving governor.

In 2001, just after Rick Perry assumed the job, he vetoed a bill that would have ended the practice of arresting those suspected of class C misdemeanors—fine-only crimes that don’t require jail time, such as traffic offenses.

But fast-forward to 2007. That year, he signed a law allowing police officers to issue citations instead of making arrests for certain class A and B misdemeanors, including marijuana possession. Perry’s reversal came about in part because the state faced a projected shortfall of 17,000 inmate beds.

In Texas and other red states, formerly law-and-order GOP lawmakers are taking the lead in reforming criminal justice systems.

In other words, yes, California’s Democratic legislature does lag behind Rick Perry’s Texas (among other states) in terms of many criminal justice reforms. Explain that one, Sacramento!

Not that the public, the press and the local officials are any better: Just notice the ongoing freakout that realignment is causing. (See above.) I mean, realignment may force us to have to back into some much-needed sentencing and pre-trial systems reform. OMG!!! The horror!!!

Posted in Courts, criminal justice, families, gender, LA County Jail, Sentencing, Sheriff Lee Baca | No Comments »

Incubating Change: LA Gets in on the Feds’ Promise Grants

September 22nd, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

Two LA Groups have just received $500,000 in federal grants
to help create programs modeled on Geoffrey Canada’s remarkable Harlem Children’s Zone.

The two groups are Proyecto Pastoral at Dolores Mission in Boyle Heights. (Love, love, love these folks. They are such a great choice.)

And the Youth Policy Institute—another group with a very good reputation, and which is very well set up to implement a program like the Promise Grants hopes eventually to fund.

Of course, $500 grand is just about enough to complete the paperwork on something as ambitious as providing cradle to college help for entire neighborhoods of children, with the notion that if you change the whole ecology in which a kid lives, you can dramatically transform that kid’s chances for a good and productive future.

Here’s how Howard Blume of the LA Times explains the HCZ strategy:

The Harlem zone covers a 97-block area of Manhattan with a $48-million budget, or about $5,000 per child annually, not including government funding for schools that substantially surpasses education spending in California. Mothers can begin to participate in its programs when they are pregnant, and services follow their children throughout their education.

In addition, the HCZ features some hot shot charter schools right in the middle of its 97 blocks.

In other words, our two new LA “Promise Neighborhoods
—two among 21 in the nation—are just about….hmmm…. $47.5 million short of what they need to launch anything resembling what Geoffrey Canada is doing, and what the Obama administration hopes to create around the nation.

The good news is that this half-million dollar jump start puts both of these groups in the running to go for some much larger federal grants, say $10 or $20 million for each neighborhood.

In other words, the Obama administration wants the two groups to use their respective $500,000 grants to develop a plan.

Will it work? Hard to say. But it’s exactly the right chance for this administration to be taking.

The New York Times also reports on its two Promise Grant winners.

Here’s a clip:

“This represents a down payment for the future educational success of children in some of the most distressed and challenged communities around the country,” Arne Duncan, the federal education secretary, told reporters in Washington.

Mr. Duncan said President Obama had asked Congress for an additional $210 million for the project in next year’s budget. Most of that would go toward bringing the improvement plans to life, although organizations would have to reapply to receive the new money….

Posted in families, National issues | 1 Comment »

Moms in Prison on Mother’s Day

May 7th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

In 1999, Sister Suzanne Jabro took a small delegation of women
to Vally State Prison at Chowchilla with the idea of starting some kind of program to help the female inmates. At any given time, Chowchilla holds around 8,000 prisoners, making it the largest woman’s incarceration facility in the world. Sister Suzanne, and her colleagues from non-profit Women and Criminal Justice (now the Center for Restorative Justice Works), had gotten permission from Chowchilla’s administrators to meet with a group of 60 women. The idea was to ask the inmates themselves what they most wanted or needed when it came to programs.

At the beginning of the meeting, the women were shy and restless and seemed not to know what to say. Finally, however, a first woman spoke.

“We never get to see our kids,” she said simply. Then another woman spoke up. “I can’t live without my kids,” she said, and she began to cry. The meeting exploded with voices. It seemed the women were not interested in amenities or privileges. Seeing their kids. That was the thing.

Within minutes, the meeting, the room was awash with outpourings of grief and longing about children. “By the end, nearly every woman in the room was sobbing,” said Sister Suzanne when we spoke this week. “Not crying. Sobbing.”

Was there any way that Jabro and her group could make seeing their kids possible? the women wanted to know.

Sister Suzanne assured the inmate women she would see what she could do. And “Get On the Bus” was born—a program that brings the children of incarcerated women to prison see their moms on Mother’s Day.

This Sunday, Get On the Bus will bring 1200 kids together with their mothers. On Father’s Day they will bring several hundred to visit their dads. Getting the right paperwork and permissions is a logistical nightmare, but every year the number of kids and the number of program sponsors expands. “Now we get calls from other states and Canada asking how they can start their own Get On The Bus,” Suzanne said.

You’d the think the need and the benefit would be obvious, and that it would have been done long ago, she said. “But it wasn’t.”

Still, as successful as the program has been, it is a small drop in a very large bucket. 200,000 California kids have one or more parents in prison. Get On the Bus serves less than 1 percent of those kids.

I first learned of the program from the California Department of Corrections, which now happily touts its partnership in the Get On the Bus efforts.

It was not always thus. The first year of the program, Sister Suzanne and company nearly didn’t get any kids in at all. “The prison officials were really against it,” she said. “They worried about security, of course. But mostly, they said, they didn’t feel that the mothers deserved to see their children.”

Sister Suzanne, who has spent much of the last 30 years working in some kind of detention ministry and/or “restorative justice,” pleaded with the prison higher ups. “I told them it wasn’t about the mothers, it was about the kids. The kids needed it.”

Finally the CDCR relented. They would try it one time. Get on the Bus was allowed to bring in nine families for a total of 17 kids, all of whom had not seen their mothers in a very, very long time.

Most of the children were living with grandmothers or other relatives who had neither the time nor money to go carting kids around to prisons for visits. Other kinds of contact was sporadic too. Collect phone calls were, of course, hideously expensive.

Out of all the studies that have been done on prison populations, comparatively few have been done on the affect of incarceration on the children of those locked up. But the research that has been done indicates a great degree of harm. Kids do less well in school, have more emotional problems, are more likely to get in trouble, teenage girls are more likely to get pregnant. Conversely, the more there is able to be positive contact with the locked-up parent, the fewer problems the kid is statistically likely to have.

Studies of prisoners have long indicated that those able to maintain close family relationships—particularly with their children— are more likely to do well outside when they are paroled. (And most of those in our prisons, state and federal both, will eventually be paroled.) “Children give men and women someone to do well for,” said Sister Suzanne. “You’d think that’d be a no-brainer. But, in terms of policy, it doesn’t seem to be.”

As I said, Sunday’s 1200 kids who will be boarding Sister Suzanne’s buses are just a fraction of the children and parents who could benefit from such visits.

But it’s a start.

And, by the way,” says Suzanne Jabro, “most of the kids we serve come from Los Angeles.”

Posted in families, prison, prison policy | 5 Comments »

Can Ted Olson & David Boies Make History?

January 21st, 2010 by Celeste Fremon


Margaret Talbot of the New Yorker Magazine has written the story that I hoped someone
would write with regard to the challenge to Proposition 8 that is being heard right now in a San Francisco courtroom (It began last week) but that, as Talbot notes, is almost certain to eventually land in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Talbot writes:

Perry v. Schwarzenegger challenges the constitutionality of Proposition 8, the California referendum that, in November, 2008, overturned a state Supreme Court decision allowing same-sex couples to marry. Its lead lawyers are unlikely allies: Theodore B. Olson, the former solicitor general under President George W. Bush, and a prominent conservative; and David Boies, the Democratic trial lawyer who was his opposing counsel in Bush v. Gore. The two are mounting an ambitious case that pointedly circumvents the incremental, narrowly crafted legal gambits and the careful state-by-state strategy that leading gay-rights organizations have championed in the fight for marriage equality. The Olson-Boies team hopes for a ruling that will transform the legal and social landscape nationwide, something on the order of Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954, or Loving v. Virginia, the landmark 1967 Supreme Court ruling that invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage.

In other words, if Ted Olson and David Boies are successful in getting the Perry case to the Supreme Court and then persuading the Supremes of the merit of the case, they will not simply overturn California’s Prop 8. That, my dears, will be the ball game.

Yet, if the challenge fails, supporters worry quite rightly that it will set back the cause of gay marriage for a very, very long time.

So, what drew conservative, Federalist Society member Ted Olson to this issue? And why has his one-time adversary David Boies joined with him? And why have they launched the case now—when many gay legal rights experts warned against a new court challenge at a time that the majority of public opinion does not yet support it?

Margaret Talbot covers all of this and more. Plus she lays out the legal thinking that has caused Olson and Boies to decide that the time was now, not later.

In addition to reading the article, do check out Terry Gross’s interview with Talbot on Wednesday’s Fresh Air.

(I recommend paying special attention to the legal concept of “strict scrutiny” that Talbot explains to Terry around or a little after the 17:50 minute mark. It is an intriguing term could be critical to the case’s failure or success. )

Even though Talbot is in D.C., she has been following various experts and advocates who are inside the courtroom tweeting and live blogging the fabulously dramatic, character-rich and anecdote-filled case, and then she has blogged her own daily analysis. (Oh, brave new interactive world.)

Much has gone into the formation of this case. And much has been arrayed against it. Margaret Talbot has done us the favor of giving us the case’s background—in the form of the legal and the human details.

Posted in Civil Rights, families, LGBT, Supreme Court | 22 Comments »

Harvey Milk Day Signed into Law by Governor Arnold

October 13th, 2009 by Celeste Fremon


Arnold Schwarzenegger seemed to grow wiser at the 11th hour
and did not make good on his threat to veto hundreds of bills in an effort to bully still warring legislators to come together long enough to craft a state water policy. (It was a tactic that the governor has used throughout his tenure with little success.)

Instead, although the governor did veto 229 bills, he signed 478—among those signed were three forward looking bills that were were seen as surprising and welcome victories by gay, lesbian and transgender communities.

Summaries of the three bills are as follows:

-The Marriage Recognition and Family Protection Act clarifies that same-sex couples who married out of state before Nov. 4, 2008 are considered married in California. Same-sex couples who have married or will marry out of state after Nov. 5, 2008 will gain all the rights of marriage in California, with the sole exception of the designation of “marriage.”

-The LGBT Domestic Violence Programs Expansion Bill will leverage funding for same-sex domestic violence services, helping to sustain the critical organizations that serve the LGBT community in this area.

-The Harvey Milk Day Bill establishes in California the first day of recognition for the slain civil rights hero. Harvey Milk Day will be May 22 of each year, Harvey’s birthday.

In particular, many seemed surprised and heartened by the governor’s signature on the Harvey Milk Day Bill—a bill that he had vetoed in the past. Milk is the second Californian, after naturalist John Muir, to receive the honor.

“We are grateful to the Governor for signing these critical and groundbreaking measures into law and rising above partisan politics to improve the lives of LGBT Californians,” said Equality California Executive Director Geoff Kors. Equality California is the largest gay-rights organization in the state.

The Harvey Milk Day bill marks the first time in the nation’s history that a state will officially recognize and celebrate the contributions of an openly LGBT person with an annual “day of special significance.”

“Californians will now learn about Harvey’s amazing contributions to the advancement of civil rights for decades to come,” Kors said. “He is a role model to millions, and this legislation will help ensure his legacy lives on forever.”

Yep, this is indeed a very good thing.

MID-MORNING POST SCRIPT: I admit, and I’m not happy about this, that I didn’t truly understand of the significance of Harvey Milk until I saw the Sean Penn movie. But then, however belatedly, I really got it.

Now, as a Californian, I’m thrilled that we will be able to officially celebrate the life and work of this astonishingly brave, remarkable and prescient man who, by example as a civil rights hero, was not merely a role model for gay and lesbian kids so long desperately in need of one, but who also pointed the way to a better, braver, saner, more compassionate way of living for every single one of us.

And thank you to Arnold, for doing the right thing. Seriously.

Posted in families, LGBT, Life in general, State government | 80 Comments »

Invisible Deaths of LA Children II: How to Help Not Harm

October 13th, 2009 by Celeste Fremon


In response to my post about Sunday’s LA Times stories
telling of the two adolescents who died in the care (if you can call it that) of LA County’s Department of Children and Family Services, Richard Wexler, the
Executive Director National Coalition for Child Protection Reform wrote me an email that was both informative and disturbing.

Wexler commented in particular on the case of Miguel Padilla, the boy who was bounced around from place to place after his mother abandoned him and his father neglected him. He was raised for a while by his elderly great grand mother, who until finally he hung himself in a stand of trees outside the group home where he was placed at the end. His body was not discovered for nine days—and only then, by accident. No one had bothered to search for the kid.

Here are the questions Wexler asked:

A little boy [Miguel] is placed with his great grandmother. There is no indication that she does not love the child, but every indication that she is too old to keep up with him, supervise him properly or get him help with mental health problems.

But why does the Los Angeles Times assume, in its story Sunday about such a boy, that the only alternative is to take him away and place him with strangers?

Why didn’t anyone think to ask if DCFS should have poured help IN to that home, instead of asking only why they didn’t take the boy out?

Apparently because the Times never asked anyone who would raise that option.

When Miguel Padilla first was placed, keeping him safely with his great-grandmother would have been relatively simple: An Intensive Family Preservation Services intervention to start with, followed by linking the great grandmother to less intensive help. Even without hindsight, the odds of Miguel succeeding, not to mention surviving, would have been far greater — and, it would have cost county taxpayers far less.

Now I don’t blame the LA Times reporters for asking those questions. Looking at the surface facts of the case, I too thought Miguel Padilla’s grandmother was too old and ill equipped to care for him. Ditto Lazhanae Harris, the 13-year-old girl whose terrible story the Times also told.

But Wexler insists that this is far from true, that if the parents are not abusive, intelligent family preservation is much, much cheaper and much more likely to have a good outcome, than dumping a kid into “the system,” as those whom I know who have had personal dealings with DCFS call foster care.

To illustrate, Wexler directed me to a video of a speech by one of his colleagues, Karl Dennis, a family preservation specialist who is also the visionary founder and longtime director of Kaleidoscope, a non-profit community-based childcare agency in Chicago.

Just a bit before the video’s halfway mark, Dennis tells a compelling about a kid who, like Miguel, had no place to go because his family couldn’t or wouldn’t take him. But Dennis and his group provided the wrap-around services necessary to return the kid to his very reluctant mother (again, for less money than a slot in the foster care system—and certainly less than incarcerating him, which was clearly where the kid was headed). It worked. According to Dennis, the difficult kid finished school and got a good paying job and now has a life.

According to Wexler, with any luck at all the same might have been true for Miguel and
Lazhanae —if the emphasis at DCFS was on family preservation.

It seems, unfortunately, that it is not. So, all too often it appears that the LA County agency that is supposed to rescue children from abuse and neglect, instead has systematized it.

Surely we can do better.

Posted in families, Foster Care | 5 Comments »

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