Sonya (her name has been changed due to the sensitive nature of her story) grew up as a child of incarcerated parents and went on to be Valedictorian of her high school class, student council president, and drum major of the band. She is currently taking time off from college and works full-time at a bank. She spoke to OK Policy intern Chelsea Fiedler about her experience growing up. Chelsea recently shared her own story as the daughter of Oklahoma corrections officers.
Chelsea: Tell me a little bit about yourself. What was your childhood generally like and what is your life like now?
Sonya: For as long as I could remember, I was moving between my father, my mother, my grandparents, my other grandparents, vice versa. I switched elementary schools a few times before part of the custody agreement between my grandparents and DHS was that I would stay in the same public school, and so that solidified when I was in fourth grade. Growing up was a lot of not really knowing when everything was set in stone, but always kind of hoping that I was finally settled…
Chelsea: Were both of your parents incarcerated? And if so, was it at the same time?
Sonya: Both of my parents were incarcerated multiple times. Several of those overlapped in one way or another. Not that they spent the same term in prison, but there was a lot of overlap especially from the ages of three to eleven… Until the death of my mother, at which point it was just a matter of my father being in and out of prison.
Chelsea: What do you remember about living with either of your parents?
Sonya: My memories of living with my mother are much more vague and dreamy … because I was so young during the times that I lived with her… Living with my father, I remember, when I was six I moved in with him, he got custody of my sister and I due to an agreement he made with the District Attorney of Craig County, and at that point he had nothing. We lived with my paternal grandmother for a while. My sister and I shared a twin sized bed for about three years. When he got his own house, it was empty. We couldn’t afford furniture or anything. I spent most of my time in day care, when I wasn’t at school … It was a lot of growing up really fast and trying to ignore the yucky things about living there, like pests and no heat or air and electricity being on an off and all that kind of stuff.
Chelsea: What was your living situation when your parents were unable to take care of you, either due to incarceration or other issues?
Sonya: I feel like I was really lucky for the majority of the time that my parents were incarcerated because my mother’s parents got certified to be foster parents and so a lot of my time in foster care, I spent with them … Looking back I recognize that I had it way better than a lot of kids in similar situations, because I had that extended family that was willing to do whatever it took to keep me out of group homes.
Chelsea: What were some of the initial challenges you faced, either emotionally or physically?
Sonya: So, emotionally, like I’ve mentioned, it was a lot of never knowing what happened next, never knowing how long things would be good, or how long things would be bad. You know what I mean? … The more physical issues were clothes that didn’t fit because my dad never had money. Or moving from my dad’s house to my grandparents’ house, and my dad didn’t let me take anything with me. My grandparents would have to take me to Walmart and buy me packs of underwear, socks, a few pairs of jeans just to get by until we had time to go school clothes shopping.
Chelsea: Were you worried that people knew what was going on, and what they thought?
Sonya: When I was younger, I didn’t understand that everybody’s lives were different. Until the age of ten or eleven, which was when I witnessed my dad being arrested and there was a police raid of our home, which was really a turning point for me. … I remember once during the summer when I didn’t have school, I spent ten days straight at a friend’s house, and finally my dad got mad and he came over to pick me up. Looking back, I feel like that friend’s parents didn’t want my dad to take me back because they were picking up on things. Her father was a dentist, and he gave me a toothbrush, because he asked if I brought one, and I said I didn’t have one. When I said that, I think that’s what cued them on, or let them in on the little secret of what my home life was like. And the longer I stayed there, the more they didn’t want to send me home. But, going into middle school and high school, I was very self-conscious of what other people thought of me…
Chelsea: So, were you offered any resources to regain stability in your life?
Sonya: As far as resources are concerned, I feel like I had very little to no help at all until fifth grade, when caseworkers [became] more heavily involved in the situation. At that point, part of my father’s charges were child endangerment and child abuse. … Looking back, I never received any counseling, which is something I think should have been, honestly, forced upon me. No one offered me that. I didn’t regularly see any mental health professional until I was seventeen years old, at which point I was working and I did it for myself. I paid to do that on my own, because it was something I recognized I needed. Which is something I would argue every child needs when they go through these issues. But resources, really, there was never an organization or a group of people or anything that helped with clothes, food, or support, or really anything that I recognized growing up.
Chelsea: So in middle school, you had a couple years of your new life situation living with your grandparents. How was it then?
Sonya: Middle school was a difficult time, just because middle school is the worst time in everyone’s life, I think … I didn’t know when I would finally settle. And in my head I was waiting for my grandparents to have the ability to adopt me. … When I was fifteen they got a kinship guardianship, which did work in my favor. That was after I personally requested my father to release his paternal rights … [I was] processing the death of my mother, and my older sister got pregnant, and so there were all of these big life-changing things happening on top of hormones, and my first period, and friends, and starting to like boys, that it was really a whirlwind. Looking back, I don’t know how I really made it that far. I remember waiting for high school because everyone said middle school was the worst and I was like, “you were right, middle school is the worst thing to ever happen to me.”
Chelsea: I understand that you have one sister and one half-sister. From what you remember, was their experience any different from yours?
Sonya: I would say there was a difference in my sisters’ experiences. My older sister, who had a different mother than my younger sister and I, was in her mother’s custody for her entire life. … I feel like I grew up way too fast, and I did everything to protect my little sister when I was younger… things like the foot traffic in our home, a lot of it was because people were coming in and out to buy and use drugs. I would shield her from that… I remember multiple times thinking my dad had the flu, when he was coming down off of a meth high. … When we didn’t have enough food, I knew if I shared my food with [my little sister], that I could walk up the street to where I knew the neighbors. I was old enough where I could do that and ask for food. My grandmother lived down the road, and though she was poor I could still go and ask her, and I could sneak away better than my sister could. Though my younger sister and I shared a lot of that experience, it was varied because of the way we both reacted to it and the ages that we were at the time.
Chelsea: In middle school, did the state or federal government, or any other source, supply any resources to you that you found particularly helpful or unhelpful?
Sonya: As far as I can remember, the only way that the state or federal government was involved with me in middle school was the fact that I started receiving Social Security Supplementary Income. … I was considered an orphan once my mother had died and my father had relinquished his paternal rights. Which of course, was helpful to my grandparents who had taken us on and were still recovering from a bankruptcy five years previous during a custody battle.
Chelsea: In you first year of high school, your dad was released from prison. What he a part of your life at this point? Did you want him to be?
Sonya: My dad was released from prison in April 2010. And I remember that because I purposefully asked to have detention after school that day because I did not want to see him … And at that point, when he was released, I got a ride home from Shelby’s mom, or to my grandmother’s house. That’s where he was supposed to be that day. And upon getting there, I learned that, I don’t know what, but something had been filed incorrectly and really the only thing that happened to my dad once he was released from prison was that his driver’s license was expired. He was not required to go to any drug or alcohol counseling, there was no restriction on his visitation with us, though I feel like after being released on charges of child abuse and child endangerment, there really should have been a stronger grip on that on behalf of DHS or the state government to some degree. And because my father is very intelligent and very manipulative, he has a way of making everything feel really nice and forcing himself to be in a good mood. I remember spending that weekend with him once he was released, and thinking “okay, things are better now.” And being sorely mistaken several months later, realizing that things were not better.
Chelsea: Do you feel like you would have benefited from other public resources to help make your life more stable if they had been made available to you? Whether that be counseling, or even just physical resources.
Sonya: … I went to church with my grandmother every Sunday, and there had been countless times that I wish someone would have noticed that I was skinny and dirty. Anybody could have offered me a warm shower or bath. I remember getting sent home from school for having head lice, and they just sent me home to the place that was infested with lice, to the parent that really didn’t care that I had head lice. And things like that, for me, because of my experience it’s hard from an outside point of view to see a child who’s suffering like that and want to help and not have the resources. And I feel like there needs to be resources in place for people who are close to the child. Like the DHS caseworkers who would visit me at school. I wish those people were there, like, my parents had criminal histories, why wasn’t I getting checked up on in the time that my parents were out of prison, instead of just when they were incarcerated? Because really, those time were the ones that I was in the most need of those resources as far as food, electricity, water, and hygiene products. …
Chelsea: In high school, did you have any mentors or friends who were a positive influence on you? Do you feel like they made a big difference in the quality of your life?
Sonya: … A woman, my Spanish teacher, gave me a book called The Wounded Woman. And it was about how to deal with guilt and how to understand your feelings and your emotions. And I don’t remember anything about it, but I remember reading it and … just appreciating the fact that someone gave me the book. … I can see myself very easily being a social worker … and feeling very satisfied in that job, like I’m helping someone just because I have my experience. And maybe someone with my experience would be more capable of helping young children in these situations … because you can relate to them so easily, and really that’s what children need. Even the attempt at relating to a child and letting them know that it’s okay is helpful and something that I wish I’d seen more of as a child.
Chelsea: You graduated as valedictorian of high school and many people still say that your graduation speech was one of the most memorable they’ve heard. You were also Student Council President and Drum Major of the band. What gave you this drive to succeed?
Sonya: Like I said, I wanted to prove [myself]. … And that was really a big motivating factor. And later that became proving to myself that I could do it, or proving to my father that I didn’t need his approval, I didn’t need his help. I could do anything I want without him. And also my grandparents did so much to give me the opportunity to be successful that I felt like I owed it to them. I thought I had to succeed because that would make my grandparents proud and that would make all of their efforts worthwhile to see me do well in life…
Chelsea: What are the challenges you face now, and how do they compare to the challenges you faced in middle school and high school?
Sonya: I would say the challenges are the same, and the only way in which they’re different is that I handle them differently now. I would say I internalize things to the same degree as I used to, as far as not wanting my peers to see certain aspects of my life, but at the same time, the way I internalize them is much healthier, because I have gotten the mental help that I need, as well as found physical resources for myself. I found a way to make a living and support myself. I wouldn’t say I live in poverty anymore, and I never have to go hungry. But I think the challenges of the things I experienced will always weigh very heavy on my heart.