By Sharna Johnson: CNJ Staff Writer
While the state works to study and counter the effects of incarceration on families and children, jails and correctional facilities face the daily battles of housing the accused and the convicted. Their focus is on keeping facilities safe and secure.
Caught in between are children who are growing, developing, learning about the world and laying an emotional and psychological foundation that will influence the remainder of their lives.
In the battle over policy, security and safety, experts argue children, their parents and even society will pay the price for the severed parental bond.
In the last month Roberto Valadez has wiped away many tears, endured tantrums, sleepless nights, seen his older daughter’s grades slip and watched helplessly as his four-year-old regresses, ceasing to speak.
He understands why it’s happening. He just doesn’t know how to answer his girls when they ask, “Why can’t I see mommy?”
“They cry a lot and I don’t have answers for them. I tell them that I’m trying everything that I can,” he said.
And his family’s story isn’t unique, he said. Valadez said he was asked by nearly a dozen women incarcerated with his wife at the Roosevelt County Adult Detention Center to help them find a way to see their children. They lost that privilege in recent months when visitation policies were changed.
The women suffer from the lack of communication with their children and some, especially those separated from newborns, struggle with depression and suicidal ideation, he said.
Female inmates, including his wife, said numerous requests for visitation have been denied, Valadez said.
“They came to me for help so they can be heard outside of the jai,” he said, “because they’re not being heard inside of the jail.”.
For Valadez, seeing his daughters — who range in age from 5 months old to 10 years old — mourn and struggle with their mother’s absence excruciating.
“They’ve been constantly in trouble, their grades are going down; I had to put my girls in counseling because of all this and I’m on medication myself — it brings tears to your eyes,” he said, explaining he leans on his family, church and the girls’ schools for support.
He doesn’t buy the jail’s explanation of security concerns, suggesting detention officers supervise the visits or take extra measures to mitigate a perceived risk.
He said the incentive of being able to see their children would give the inmates something to work toward and could actually reduce behavior and emotional issues.
“They understand that they’ve done wrong, but it’s not the children’s fault,” he said.
Many women and men at the jail are incarcerated for probation violations or nonviolent crimes, he said, like his wife who is waiting trial on charges of writing worthless checks.
“There’s some people in there for bad charges and some in there for just violations and they’re being treated like murderers. (My wife’s) in there just for checks and I know that’s a crime time too, but she’s not in there for hurting anybody,” he said.
“Everyone in there that I know of looks forward to visits. They’re not asking to touch (their children), just to see them, even through glass… (Detention staff just) don’t like to put in the extra effort.”
And to the children, the environment barely factors in.
“They don’t see a jail,” he said. “They see Mommy, or they see Daddy.”
Children are not permitted to visit at the Roosevelt County jail because of security and liability concerns, according to RCADC Administrator Don Burdine.
If an issue were to arise, like a fight among visitors, Burdine said children might be placed in harm’s way.
“It just puts the facility in a situation where the facility would be liable. Jail has the potential to be a violent place and I don’t want to see young children caught in the middle of that,” he said.
Roosevelt’s jail is not the only county detention facility with a policy prohibiting children from visiting their parents.
At the Curry County Adult Detention Center, children are only permitted to visit four holidays a year — Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter and Mother’s or Father’s day, according to Assistant Administrator Keith Bessette.
Visitors and inmates are separated by glass and monitored by detention officers.
Bessette said in the interest of safety and security, the visitation policy was changed during a recent policy review.
All too often, he said detention staff found children were not being supervised by the adults and were allowed to roam unchecked in the visiting and lobby areas during visitation.
Additionally, allowing children in a secure facility opens up other issues.
“With children come baby bags (and) a lot more things that are necessary for the proper care of children but can still be used to bring in contraband,” he said.
Ultimately, jails are a short-term holding facility where inmates are housed while they either await trial or serve short sentences, Bessette said.
But the state’s prisons, where longer sentences are served, have taken a different approach with a policy that states as long as a prisoner is allowed to have visitors; those visitors are permitted to be children, according to state corrections spokeswoman Tia Bland.
Bland said there are strict rules and visitation privileges can be revoked for violations.
New Mexico Department of Corrections facilities accommodate family visits whenever possible, have a variety of programs to support families, and work with community groups as well, she said.
“We absolutely support and encourage children visiting incarcerated parents. It strengthens the family bond which helps the offender transition from jail or prison to back home in the community,” she said.
Valadez’ story is actually quite typical, as is the stance taken by the Roosevelt and Curry County Detention Centers, according to Megan Finno, who works with special projects for Child Protective Services.
The Children, Youth and Families Department recognizes the trauma caused to families by incarceration as a “huge” issue nationwide, she said, and the state is actively developing programs and strategies to deal with it.
Children separated from their parents by incarceration more often than not struggle in school, battle shame and emotional distress, exhibit behavior problems and in the end, pose a higher risk of becoming criminals themselves, she said.
Likewise, incarcerated parents display more behavior and emotional issues when they are unable to see their children.
“We are a major supporter of children maintaining contact with their parents all throughout incarceration. If a child’s parent is incarcerated, it’s by no fault of the child. When a parent’s incarcerated, it’s a very traumatic event for a child. … if the parent is arrested in their presence that’s especially traumatic or if it happens while the child is at school and their parent just disappears, they’re not always able to comprehend why this is going on. They really need reassurance that their parent is OK,” Finno said.
“We find that in any case, it’s so important just to be able to maintain some kind of communication. They’re experiencing a huge separation and loss regardless.”
But county detention centers are under local administrations who are, by and large, resistant to instating child visitation policies, Finno said.
Two years ago, CYFD put out a call to counties requesting proposals from those interested in implementing programs at their facilities to enable parent-child visitation, she said.
“(But) what we found is that there’s some push back on that and we don’t have the authority to go in the detention centers and the jails if they don’t want to work with us,” she said.
The programs offer funding and assistance to make child visitation work for jails.
Some facilities have made child-friendly rooms with toys and games to remove the intimidation factor jail can present to kids, incorporated parenting classes into visits and developed incentive programs that offer visits as a reward to successful inmates.
“It’s like they live for that. (Inmates) totally shape up. It gives them something to look forward to,” she said. “They want to see their kids and their kids want to see them, and it’s an amazing thing to be able to facilitate.”
To date, a handful of larger counties in the state — Roosevelt and Curry are not among them — have taken advantage of the programs, she said.
Attitudes are shifting, and facilities are beginning to understand the effect incarceration has on families, children and ultimately the community and society as a whole.
But it’s a slow process, she said.