She doesn’t remember Jeffrey’s funeral.
But Laura Taff knows that’s when it all started – the booze, the pills, the drugs, anything she felt would sedate her.
All of it was self-medication. Taff wanted the pain and guilt to go away.She wanted to forget that moment she couldn’t keep from remembering—the moment when she found her 4-month-old baby boy next to her in bed, stiff, cold and dead.
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Taff’s son Jeffrey died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. She was 19.
Taff, who had one other son at the time of Jeffrey’s death, went on to have five more sons. She also went on to drink heavily and abuse prescription drugs and eventually methamphetamine. Taff has drug convictions in Oklahoma County dating to 2000 and had entered Drug Court in 2001. After a drug-related arrest, she was revoked from the program in 2004.
She is serving a 47-year sentence on five drug-possession convictions to run concurrently and has been recommended for parole.
Meth is the devil,” Taff, now 39, said. “It will take everything from you—your kids, your house, your car, your sanity, and then you’re left with nothing.”
Taff, who grew up in Midwest City, is one of about 2,300 mothers incarcerated by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, according to estimates from Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth study.
Her sons, who range in age from 9 to 23, are part of a hidden population whose numbers are hard to measure and whose future may be in jeopardy.
That’s partly because children of incarcerated parents are not specifically tracked by any state agency. Also, some female offenders may not report having a child for fear of losing custody.
“We don’t have any list of all the kids in the state who have a mother or father in prison,” said Susan Sharp, a University of Oklahoma sociology professor who has studied women in the state’s prisons since 1997. “We don’t have any way of identifying them, which is bad because a lot of them need services, they need counseling, they need mentoring and they need medication. They slip through the cracks.”
These children are more at risk of unhealthy behaviors, and providers say they have a hard time finding the children to give them the services they need, said child advocates and researchers.
“People that have trauma typically move to behavior that they’re trying to use to cope with their issues—alcohol, other drugs, early sexual promiscuity, eating disorders, things like that—to self medicate through those trauma issues,” said Linda Terrell, executive director of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy.
Two child advocacy groups have generated estimates for the number of children impacted.
The Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy states that about half of the adults in Oklahoma’s prison population, or 13,375, are parents to about 27,400 minor children, which accounts for about 3 percent of the children in Oklahoma, according to a 2010 report.
The Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth estimates about 7,100 children in Oklahoma have an incarcerated mother.
The group found children with an imprisoned parent are more likely to suffer from depression, have poorer academic performance and have conflicts with friends, teachers and caretakers.
Laura Pitman, deputy director of DOC’s female offender operations, said there has been discussion on tracking children, but it is not a DOC role.
“When we’re talking about the children of incarcerated parents, we [the Department of Corrections] have responsibility for the care and custody of the parent,” Pitman said. “We have no responsibility or authority to have oversight of the kids. The next part is – the kids didn’t do anything …. You’ve got to be cautious of not stigmatizing children further.”
Where children go
When Taff was incarcerated in 2004, her children first went to their aunt. Then, they scattered.
The youngest son, who was 2, went to live with Taff’s brother and his wife. Three sons, ages 7 to 10, were separated for three years when they went into foster care. They are now reunited and live in a foster home with other boys their age.
Taff’s two older sons did their best as teenagers to dodge the state Department of Human Services, living on the streets for a while. Her oldest, now 23, is on a work-release program in Garfield County for violating his probation on a drug charge, and her 18-year-old son has taken welding classes from Job Corps.
It is not uncommon for children to be shuffled around and separated. Family members or friends of parents may lose patience or not have the money to support the children, so they are sent to another home.
In a recent survey of female offenders, about one-third of those who are mothers say their children are living with a partner and another one-third say their children are living with their mother. Others report their children living with siblings, other family members, friends and foster care.
“It affects their ability to attach their trust in the world,” Sharp said. “They’re moving around to different schools, don’t have roots, don’t have friendships that last long periods of time, just a lot of things happen to these kids.”
Deborah Smith, director of Child and Family Services for DHS, said no state or federal law requires tracking of children of incarcerated parents.
Meanwhile, caseworkers have faced problems locating parents and getting an incarcerated parent to family court for parental rights termination proceedings, she said.
A parent’s incarceration is not sufficient grounds to terminate rights, but DHS does not have the authority or ability to bring an imprisoned parent to court, Smith said.
If court proceedings are held without the incarcerated parent present, an attorney represents the parent through a process involving usually three hearings.
“It would very frightening for the judge to make the decision, and you’re not there to know what decisions are being made,” Smith said.
CHILDREN FEEL SHAME
When Beth Smart was 9, her father went to prison for the first time.
Smart lived in Depew, a Creek County town of about 600 people. Just like most small towns, everyone knew everyone’s business.
“It was embarrassing,” Smart said. “I carried a lot of shame. I tried to cover that up a lot.”
Smart’s father went to prison a second time when she was 18. As Smart grew older, she grew frustrated seeing herself on the same path — alcoholism, lying, stealing and cheating.
“I hated him for it, but at the same time, I was right in the middle of it,” she said.
Smart, 26, is a mother of two boys, ages 2 and 4, and an inmate at Eddie Warrior in Taft. She was convicted in Creek County of a forgery charge in October 2008, which resulted in a five-year suspended sentence.
In December 2009, the sentence was revoked and amended to three years in prison and two years probation after pleading guilty to false impersonation, receiving a two-year sentence running concurrently with her previous conviction, according to court and prison records. Her court fines total about $3,500.
Sharp said people generally assume that if a woman goes to prison she must be a terrible mother.
“That’s simply not true,” Sharp said. A lot of them are very good mothers. They could be better mothers if they were off drugs and had help with their own trauma, but they’re not all horrible mothers.”
For many female offenders, they experienced trauma in their own childhoods, according to a 2010 survey of 301 female offenders by Sharp and OU graduate student Emily Pain.
About 43 percent reported having a violent father, about 29 percent reported a violent mother, 66 percent lived with an adult with a drinking problem and about 40 percent were both sexually and physically abused as children. Many inmates say they experienced more than one of these events, causing overlap among the categories.
“It’s like we say, ‘Oh, the poor child, the poor child, the poor child – Oops, you’re 18, now you’re the guilty one,” Sharp said. “Oklahoma has such a rugged individualism that the idea is, well, so bad things happen to you, you can just pull yourself up by your bootstraps. But they’ve never learned coping skills. They’ve never learned how to deal with emotional pain. They don’t know any of those things, so they end up offending.”