Sunday, May 14, 2017

A different kind of Mothers' Day story

“Sometimes the strength of motherhood is greater than natural laws.” — Barbara Kingsolver, American author

ALTHOUGH today, here in the United States, we celebrate mothers, I believe we should celebrate all women: those who are mothers, those who wanted to be mothers but didn’t get the chance, those who once were mothers, those who mother those around them including other people’s children, animals, wounded adults, the elderly, all of nature and the earth. Because women so often are the nuturers and the caretakers of all life around them.


Below is a story from the Des Moines Register about a mother who’s trying her best to still mother.


For these kids, mom’s voice comes in the mail — from prison


By Courtney Crowder

May 10, 2017 

MITCHELLVILLE, Ia. — Kristine Gordon walks swiftly toward a table replete with books, each bright, multi-colored cover staged upright with pages outspread just so or placed in a fanned stack for easy browsing.


But Gordon wasn’t interested in perusing. She knew exactly what book she wanted.


Gordon and her 9-year-old daughter have a deal: Every month they switch off who gets to choose the title Gordon is recorded reading to her little girl. This month was her child's turn, and she wanted “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.”


As an inmate living at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women, Gordon is nervous. She can’t just order any work off Amazon or request a specific title; she is at the whim of donations. So her eyes darted from book to book until she found “Wimpy Kid’s” bright red cover. “Yes!” she whispered, clutching the book close.


For 20 years, the Storybook Project of Iowa has recorded offenders reading books and has mailed the text and the recording to their children. They’ve weathered changes in the prison system in their mission to promote literacy and strengthen the sometimes strained relationship between children and their incarcerated mothers. 


Rooted in the idea that strong families are the building blocks of a successful society — and children feel deep affection for their parents whether locked up or not — organizers said the Des Moines-based Storybook Project provides a highly controlled opportunity for children to connect with their mothers without having to visit a prison. 


“Most kiddos are impacted negatively by any separation from their mom, and these women are still 'mom' behind bars,” said Tabby Kuehl, director of the Storybook Project. “Most kiddos don’t know what has happened. They just know mom is not around and they miss her. So if I can do this one thing to get mom to read to her children, and encourage them and help them build confidence and be able to better address whatever is going on in those kiddos' lives, I’m going to do that.”


 It's natural for children to want to have a bond with their parents. Pop culture is peppered with shows about people seeking out birth mothers, and Facebook abounds with requests to help find long-lost fathers. As University of Iowa professor Rachel Marie-Crane Williams put it: It’s not fair to punish an incarcerated women’s children, who just want to have a relationship with their parent like most other kids, simply because of crimes committed by the mother.


While Iowa hasn't seen a dramatic increase in female prisoners recently, Department of Corrections predictions show the population of women inmates stands to grow by almost 30 percent over the next decade. In Iowa, about 58,000 children, or 8 percent of the child population, have experienced parental incarceration, according a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a philanthropic nonprofit tracking child welfare issues.


Familial incarceration can lead to children experiencing “disenfranchised grief,” according to the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated. And kids with incarcerated parents are also more likely to endure household instability or live in poverty, the center reported.


“Having a parent incarcerated is a stressful, traumatic experience of the same magnitude as abuse (and has) a potentially lasting negative impact on a child’s well-being,” including increasing children’s mental health issues like depression and anxiety, said the Annie E. Casey report. 


Storybook, which is run by the nonprofit Visiting Nurse Services of Iowa and funded through donations and the occasional grant, hopes to counteract those negative outcomes by allowing parents and children to bond over books. The program is a win-win in the eyes of Williams, who pointed out that in Iowa, about one-third of children in kindergarten through third grade do not read at grade level. 





The group of about 25 women who read every month includes women who are in prison for life, said Betty Trost, a retired lecturer in family and consumer sciences at Iowa State University and one of the founders of the Storybook Project in Iowa. Often, volunteers don’t know the women’s crimes, but if they did, it isn’t their job to judge, but to help them and their families as they are now, Trost said.


Gordon, 30, is in the midst of a 17-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter and leaving the scene of a crash resulting in death. She apologized profusely during her trial, the Register previously reported, and members of the deceased’s family spoke on her behalf in court.


When Gordon came into the system about five years ago, she was aware the statistics said her daughter would be adversely affected by her imprisonment. But as she atoned for her crime, she made a promise to better herself as a mother. 


Enter: Storybook.


“Storybook makes me feel like I can do something positive, that I can be a positive influence,” Gordon said. “Being able to send her books and the recordings makes me feel like I’m doing something good for her, and it can be hard to feel that way when you are incarcerated.”


“Wimpy Kid” in hand, Gordon and a volunteer walk over to a table that’s been separated from the room by a small divider splashed with images from “Thomas the Tank Engine.” All around the meticulously organized library, these little dividers — painted with characters from “Dora the Explorer” and “The Simpsons” — offer touches of life on the outside, but the distractions are only momentary.


As Gordon begins to read, the prison PA system goes off, its stern voice loudly offering a jarring contrast to the lilt she is using to emote.


Gordon, a bookworm herself, started with Storybook in an attempt to get her daughter to read more.


“When she was younger, she struggled with reading,” Gordon said, “so it was nice to give her books that I thought she might enjoy, that might catch her attention.”


Her daughter ate the books up, and her reading improved greatly, said Joshua Potter, the daughter’s father. Almost five years later, Gordon’s daughter can barely contain her excitement when she knows a book is coming, Potter said. The Register is not naming the daughter at the request of her family.


Education is where researchers see the greatest disparity between children with incarcerated parents and those without, said Kristin Turney, a sociologist whose research focuses on the intersection between criminal justice and family life.


“Kids with incarcerated parents are less likely to graduate high school, less likely to go to college and more likely to have worse grades,” Turney said.


Reading to young children, as women who participate in Storybook do, is one way to combat those figures. Getting a child to read stimulates brain development and helps with critical thinking, vocabulary and social skills, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.


There isn’t much data on how programs like Storybook affect kids, but Kuehl and her volunteers regularly survey the inmates they serve to better understand what they hear from their children.


Almost 70 percent of inmates “reported that their child talked to their caregiver about the book they receive,” Storybook found in its 2016 survey, and more than 60 percent of children have “requested a specific book" for their mom to read to them. More than 80 percent of inmates also “reported that Storybook has helped strengthen their relationship with their child.”


Gordon’s daughter loves the books she gets, Potter said, and chats with him regularly about what she thought about the story and the characters. He believes the program has "definitely" helped his daughter maintain a relationship with her mother.


For Gordon, the physicality of sending a book means her daughter will have something tangible to hold when she needs to feel close to her mom.


“It has always been comforting to know that with Storybook she didn’t have to miss me because she could sit in her room and listen to the recording and read the book that I had read to her,” Gordon said. “It meant we could stay connected even when we weren’t.” 


A few lines in, Gordon realizes there are a lot of drawings in “Wimpy Kid.” So after she reads each page’s text, she goes back and describes the pictures she sees, sometimes offering asides like, “That’s silly!” 


Unlike many other moms in prison, Gordon has a lot of contact with her daughter. Potter brings their daughter to the prison often because he believes “it’s important for a girl to know her mother no matter the circumstances.”


Also unlike a lot of other female prisoners, Gordon had a good relationship with her own mother.


“Growing up, my mom and I, our bonding time was she sat and read a book, and I sat and read a book, and we would bond over reading books together,” she said.


She lived a fairly normal life, swimming at North High School and winning the state title for two-person controversy debate as a sophomore. She graduated from North in 2005 and gave birth to her daughter in 2007.


But she was plagued by addictions after high school and had many run-ins with the law. She had been barred from driving due to her fourth OWI when she fatally hit Clayton Evan Payne, 58, in 2013.


Gordon told police she thought she hit an animal and pulled over, but panicked and fled when she saw a crowd gathering around a person, the Register reported. Pedestrians always have the right of way in a crosswalk. However, witnesses told police that Gordon had a green light, wasn’t speeding and swerved in an attempt to avoid Payne.


In court, Gordon told the Payne family that at the time of the crash, she’d recently lost her father.


“Knowing that I caused that pain to another family is tearing me apart,” she said. “It will haunt me forever.”


Some of the deceased’s family members met with Gordon in the weeks before her sentencing, according to Register reporting at the time. They wanted to caution her against ending up like Payne, who had struggled with drug and alcohol addiction and was living in a halfway house at the time of his death.


Joanne Payne, Clayton's mother, hasn't forgiven Gordon, but said she isn't troubled by Gordon finding ways to connect with her daughter.


"It's probably a good thing," she said.


In prison, Gordon has remained sober and on good behavior. She believes that despite her past, she can still affect the world in a positive way. "I made mistakes," she said, "but I am not the same person that I was."


“She is a hard-working, solid offender,” said social worker Sheri Floyd. “She has a job. She doesn’t get in trouble, and she volunteers for different programs, and that is true for most of the readers.”


Gordon dreams about her daughter listening to her recordings, she said. She can see in her mind’s eye her daughter carrying around the books and cracking their spines when she wants to feel close to her mom. 


More than anything, Gordon says she wants to be a positive influence on her daughter, to teach her right from wrong as a person who has been on both sides.


“I want to be able to show her that being a girl isn’t something that is limiting,” she said. “You can do anything you want even if you are a girl...I want her to know that she is smart and capable, and if she wants to do something and sets her mind to it, she can do it.”


Most mothers will eventually leave prison and face the formidable task of re-entering society. In Iowa, 94 percent of female inmates will leave the prison system at some point, according to the DOC.


And when Gordon, who is due for release in 2021, and her fellow inmates do get out, they will confront a family system that has grown and changed while they were away. For many prisoners, life on the outside will be tough, said Williams, a University of Iowa professor. It will be hard for them to nail down a job, to find adequate housing or possibly to get custody or visitation rights to their children.


“A felony is akin to a civic death, but if you have strong family connections before you get out, you reduce your chances of failing and going back into the system,” she said.


Even though Gordon has stayed in contact with her daughter, she still worries about how difficult it will be to get involved in her life on the outside. She wants her daughter to know that you can make mistakes and still figure out a way back to right.


"Just because you have made bad choices doesn’t mean you are a bad person, so it is OK for her to make a mistake,” she said. “I hope they are not the same mistakes that I have made, clearly, but Storybook enables me to influence her in a positive way and show her that positive things can happen even if you are in a not-so-positive situation."


As Gordon finishes "Wimpy Kid's" first chapter, she marks the page with a specially selected animal bookmark and tells her daughter to continue reading. She ends her recording with an enthusiastic, “I love you.”


Gordon walks over to the check-in desk, fills out the mailing envelope and writes the book and her daughter’s name on a blank CD.


She pauses over the envelope, now stuffed with a book and a CD, and holds her hand over her daughter’s name as if trying to will more love into the package. A smile crosses her face, and she pats the envelope before looking up at the volunteers.


“Can I sign up for next month?” she asks.


How to donate:


The Storybook Project of Iowa is most in need of monetary donations, but is always looking for mailing supplies and books. Digital donations can be made at bit.ly/2nME5AK, and any other gifts can be mailed to The Storybook Project, c/o Tabby Keuhl, 1111 9th St., Ste 320, Des Moines, IA 50314. Call 515-288-1516 for more information on volunteering or contributing.

1 comment:

  1. I want to start my comments with this quote from the article: "More than 80 percent of inmates also “reported that Storybook has helped strengthen their relationship with their child.”" As I was reading, I thought that the program would help them ease back into a relationship with their children upon return - thus strengthening their resolve to remain free. Sure enough, later on, that's the finding. Good plan. Remember when rehabilitation was part of imprisonment? This seems like a piece of rehabbing people. I'd like to see Dads do it too.

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