By Deja Osby Kassof
When I was two and a half years old, I was placed in foster care, and at age four, I was adopted. Many factors lead to my placement and subsequent adoption, but parental incarceration was the most substantial.
I was taken away while my father was in prison and my mother was mentally and physically unavailable.
For months, my father had no idea I was gone. At times, he was unable to reach my mother, so he could not be sure that I was being cared for adequately and could not make arrangements for my safety.
Teen Vogue recently published a segment on the effects of parental incarceration. In ‘What’s It’s Like to have an Incarcerated Parent,’ Soros Justice Fellow, Ebony Underwood, explains, “When you incarcerate an individual, you incarcerate their entire family, and that’s what most people don’t take into consideration.”
When my father was locked up, his entire family was affected. If my dad had been able to keep in contact with his loved ones, I would not have gone to foster care. He would have made sure that I was cared for by someone with the capacity to do so adequately.
He would not have lost contact with his only daughter for 17 years. His only daughter would not have spent 17 years wondering why her family did not want her.
She would not have been so angry, or so broken.
I’ve asked myself what would lead a family to relinquish custody of their precious child. Today, as a 20-year-old, I still struggle to understand the policies that have affected my life as a child impacted by incarceration.
As a young child, I certainly couldn’t fathom the idea that there were systems in place that would keep a child from their birth parents even if the parents fought relentlessly for them. For 17 years I looked at pictures of my older brothers, younger sister, mother, and father wondering if they were alive.
Last year, I was able to build up the courage to look for a family that I thought abandoned me. My father cried when he first laid eyes on me. My older brother has my name tattooed on his forearm.
My mother, who is serving a five-year sentence at the California Women’s Institute, screamed for several minutes straight when she first heard my voice. I was pleased to find out that they have all grown to be outstanding human beings, and it was evident that there wasn’t a day that went by in the last 17 years where they stopped loving me.
Now that I have re-connected with my family, I look forward to making memories to fill the voids in my heart. To mend the pieces that were broken, patched, and re-broken each time I wondered if the people who gave me life were still breathing.
Every Sunday I eagerly await a phone call from my mother. For 15 minutes a week, we talk about life before my placement through interruptions from a recorded voice telling us that we are being monitored. I don’t mind this disruption quite as much as the one that says my balance is low.
As soon as I can afford a “vacation” to LA from the Bay Area, I will meet my mother for the first time face to face in 17 years. I hope that I don’t travel 420 miles just to have my visit through a glass window, as many families do.
This coming January, I anticipate that I will have graduated early, with the highest honors, and overcome tremendous adversity.
Through an internship with Alameda County Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership (ACCIPP) I have learned a lot about systems behind reunification and visitation; two areas that have impacted me tremendously.
For more about ACCIPP and its upcoming Nov. 29 summit, go to http://accipp.org/