Incarcerated women's children may not get services they need
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.
Oklahoma Watch is an independent investigative and in-depth reporting team that partners with news organizations and higher education to produce impact journalism in the public interest. This is one in a series of stories in which Oklahoma Watch, The Oklahoman and the Tulsa World are examining the issue of Oklahoma's female incarceration rate. For more, go to News
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 boy next to her in bed, stiff, cold and dead.
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 After a drug-related arrest, she was revoked from the program in 2004.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 an 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, child advocates and researchers say.
Coping with issues
“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 affected.
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 that 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 the Department of Correction's female offender operations, said tracking children has been discussed, but it is not a corrections department 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.”
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.
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