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Nicole Contrino holds tightly onto her daughter’s hand as she weaves through a sea of parents and children at Bayshore Town Center. Sounds of jazz combos, flute choirs and string orchestras fill the mall.
“We should have ironed your shirt before we left. It looks so wrinkly,” says Nicole.
Nicole finds the room where all the children are getting ready for their concert and drops her daughter off with the violin instructor. She waits until she is absolutely sure that she is in safe hands before joining the audience.
Every year, the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra opens its season with the “Playathon” gala where more than 900 students perform at Bayshore mall.
MYSO is one of the largest youth orchestra programs in the country, and one of its young musicians is 10-year-old Malia Contrino. Malia plays the violin; her art teacher nominated her for the program. Two or three children can be nominated from each school. Malia was accepted right away.
“It’s a gifted and talented school,” says Malia. “I got a scholarship for kids who do good in other schools.”
There to watch Malia’s performance are her mother, her grandmother and her step-grandmother. But someone who isn’t there is her father. Most children would be upset, but Malia is used to his absence.
Since before Malia was born, her biological father has been in and out of prisons. While Malia’s upbringing may seem unusual, children with incarcerated parents are common in the United States. A Common Circumstance
In the past 21 years, there has been a significant increase in parents of minor children being sent to prison. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2006, 1.5 million children had an incarcerated parent.
The absence of a parent puts children at serious risk of experiencing feelings of abandonment and separation, which can create instability in other family relationships, negatively affecting behavior in school and at home. Children of incarcerated parents are also more likely to be exposed to substance abuse, alcohol and violence.
Clinical Assistant Professor of the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare Katie M. Mangan has dealt extensively with family trauma and says that the incarceration of a parent can affect many aspects of a family.
“You’ve got the interruption of that relationship,” said Mangan. “Whatever occurred that disrupted issues of trust and reliance on each other to provide for the family both from a monetary standpoint to a nurturing and supporting standpoint, to being present and very involved in the children’s lives.”
After the conviction, it’s common for the family of an incarcerated individual to feel anger, frustration, loss, depression and abandonment. Mangan relates this absence to death.
“The trauma that’s created is just the absence of that person from the system. That would follow the same behaviors as any parent being removed from death or separation or divorce,” Mangan said.
These feelings are common in children with parents in prison. However, Malia doesn’t feel that way, at least not anymore.
“When I was little, my dad was never in my life because he was always in jail,” she said. “Because he’s never in my life, he’s kind of like a stranger to me.”
When Nicole was three months pregnant with Malia, she separated from Malia’s biological father because of the lifestyle he was falling into — a lifestyle Nicole didn’t agree with or want around her daughter.
“I was working, I was going to school and trying to keep it all together and that was the end of that. He’s just never been around,” Nicole said.
When Malia was six months old, her father went to prison at the age of 18. Prior to his incarceration, he had only seen Malia three or four times. He was convicted on charges of armed robbery and sentenced to serve six and half years.
During his incarceration, he would send letters asking Nicole to bring Malia to the prison during visiting hours. But Nicole said she would never allow Malia to visit her father in jail because of the environment. “I think Malia has this innocence to her that I’m not going to let be tainted by his mistakes,” said Nicole.
Visiting an incarcerated parent can be a traumatic experience for some children. Parents may be apprehensive to bring their children into an environment such as a jail or prison. Malia said that she wouldn’t want to visit her father in jail because there are “scary men trying to murder people.”
While it’s probably fair that a child would make that assumption about criminal institutions given the amount of violence in media, there are programs offered to minors with incarcerated parents who are trying to prevent those assumptions.
Visiting a Parent in Prison
The Family Reunification Program is offered through the St. Rose Youth & Family Center in Milwaukee and is an independent nonprofit organization. Volunteers work with children affected by parental incarceration and arrange for them to visit their parent in jail or prison. There are also individual and family therapy and children support groups.
FRP Coordinator Bridgett Brown has worked for the program for 12 years. She said that visitation is very important in holding on to whatever relationship the child has with their parent. There are even three-ring binders filled with pictures of prisons that volunteers show children before the visitation to demonstrate that the facilities portrayed on TV are not necessarily what they actually look like.
Brown says the program gives hope to children and reassures them that it isn’t their fault that their parent is in jail.
“In my opinion, these children are the hidden victims because when a parent goes to prison, no one thinks about the child,” Brown said. “It punishes the child for what their parent did but what’s going to happen to the child?”
Director of Field Education for the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare Jeanne Wagner agrees that visitation is important.
“Children need to have an understanding of what’s happening and the environment should be explained,” said Wagner.
Contact with an incarcerated parent can also help with the reentry process into society.
Dean of the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare at UW-Milwaukee Stan Stojkovic said that visitation helps people, specifically those with long prison sentences. Visitation is a “strong predictor variable” whether or not an ex-offender will be successful reentering society. Statistically, two thirds of those released from prison will return within three years of their release.
“They’ll go back or they’ll commit another crime and they may come back,” said Stojkovic. “They either didn’t get anything inside, they didn’t get a skill, they didn’t get support, they didn’t learn how to handle anger, relationships, nothing.”
Stojkovic said the statistic is far too high and that keeping in contact with the family is very important for former inmates to make a successful adjustment.
Coming and Going
Malia’s father has been in and out of jail for Malia’s entire life. Nicole says it’s because of parole violations stemming from the armed robbery.
“There was one time where he was two months from being off parole and he violated it by riding in a car that had drugs in it and he went right back to prison for another year,” Nicole said.
Nicole is frustrating that he won’t get his life together for his daughter, but it’s something she just expects now. When Malia would ask where her father was, Nicole told Malia that he was busy working.
“I didn’t tell Malia the truth about her father until she was eight. He was in jail during that time too and he’s never been out of jail for more than five months,” Nicole said.
There was a period of time when Malia’s father made a serious effort to be in her life.
One day while Nicole and Malia were walking down the street, a man pulled up to them and it was Malia’s father. Nicole said he recognized Nicole, not Malia.
“He hadn’t seen her since she was born and there she was six and a half years old,” said Nicole. “That was weird.”
A year after that encounter, Malia’s father reached out to Nicole asking her if he could be involved in Malia’s life. Nicole agreed and invited Malia’s father to the park introducing him as Calvin, not Malia’s father. Slowly after that, he started visiting two to three times a week and calling Malia everyday. Nicole says that Malia was head over heels for him and was telling all her friends that she finally had a dad.
These visits and phone calls went on for about six months. But then, the phone calls stopped. After a month of no contact, Nicole reached out to the father asking him why he wasn’t talking to Malia. He said he wanted to focus on himself. Malia was devastated.
“She was just so depressed. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and I would hear her just laying in her bed sobbing to herself,” said Nicole.
Malia would ask her mother why her father didn’t want to see her anymore. Nicole decided to tell Malia the truth about where her father had been for the majority of her life. Nicole told Malia that the reality is she got “stuck with a bad dad” and that he wasn’t someone she should be sad about given his past actions. “And Malia cried for the rest of that day and never since,” said Nicole.
When Malia talks about her feelings toward her dad, her face shows little emotion. She speaks about him as if he’s a stranger she had a brief interaction with. But she’s content with her family life and says it doesn’t bother her that her father is absent.
The only reason why Malia would like to talk to her father is to meet her half siblings. She said that she wants to meet them but she doesn’t want to see her dad.
“I want to meet my siblings on his side,” said Malia. “I have a brother on his side and I’m about to have a sister.”
Although Malia misses her half siblings, she says she has close relationships with Nicole’s boyfriend’s children. Chris has three children, all under the age of ten. Malia knows Nicole is happier with Chris.
“Chris is my mom’s boyfriend who I kind of think of as a dad because he acts like one,” said Malia.
Malia’s father still attempts to contact her even after both Nicole and Malia have expressed their feelings. Nicole is afraid that Malia’s father would come into her daughter’s life again to only break her heart and go back to prison. Given his consistent parole violations, Nicole wouldn’t be surprised if he was incarcerated again.
In one instance, Nicole received a text message from Malia’s father asking if he could see Malia. Malia hasn’t seen her father in over a year, but, recently, Nicole has been receiving text messages and phone calls from Malia’s father at least three or four times a week. But Nicole said he only reaches out when it’s the right time for him.
“She’s not a child of convenience, she’s a real little girl with real feelings and she can really feel hurt,” said Nicole. “I’m bitter that he’s never consistently been there for her and he just feels like we’re on his time and his clock.”
Reaching Out with a Text Message
When Nicole receives the text, she tells Malia and asks her if she would like to say anything to him. Malia says very nonchalantly, “Sure.”
Malia texts her father saying that she didn’t want to be mean or hurt his feelings but she doesn’t want to see him. She tells him that he has never been in her life so there’s no point in starting to have a relationship now.
“I told him that the only connection that I want to have with him is so that I can meet my half siblings,” says Malia.
Malia remains calm as she reads the text messages from her father. Sitting on the couch in the living room, Malia appears to be unmoved by her father’s attempt to rekindle a relationship. Malia’s father tells her he realizes he’s made mistakes since she was born but he wants to make up for it.
These words are all too familiar to both Malia and Nicole.
“He would have to stop going to jail, get a job, stay with a girlfriend for a long time. He should just stop going to jail so much,” Malia says.
The conversation ends when Malia texts her father saying that she already has a great dad who loves her and cares for her. She tells her father that she would like to meet her half siblings but until then she doesn’t want to speak.
Nicole wants her daughter to continue being the kind hearted and genuine person she is and to thrive in school. She hopes that Malia will look at her father’s life choices and avoid those types of negative qualities in her future boyfriends and husband. Actually, she really hopes Malia will never date.
“As long as she’s happy and not dating guys in prison. I’d actually prefer she didn’t date any guys,” says Nicole.
When asked what she would do if her boyfriend or husband went to jail, Malia answered without any hesitation.
“I would break up with them and then throw all their stuff away on the streets,” she said.