Preface by Joette Katz, Commissioner of the CT Department of Children and Families
Many of the adolescent girls served by the Department of Children and Families have experienced trauma — often severe — in the form of sexual or physical abuse, separation from family, multiple placements, and experiencing death or imprisonment of loved ones. This trauma has an indelible effect on their development, thinking and decision making. Despite the fact that these young women carry with them very difficult backgrounds, they also need to understand that their decisions can have a devastating impact on their future. This story concerns a unique encounter that we hope drives home the point that teenage girls quickly grow to become young women who can pay a high price for not making good choices.
WATERBURY — It was just a room — a basketball gym, actually.
But its affect was magical. The occupants travelled in time. The girls saw their future, and the women saw their past.
The space transformed relationships. The girls and the women met for the first time; they were strangers. But the girls saw their mothers in the women. And the women saw their daughters in the girls.
The response was tears and urgency.
The girls, 19 youths served by the Department of Children and Families (DCF) who had been committed to DCF as “delinquents” by a juvenile court, live at a privately-run treatment center in Waterbury called Stepping Stone. The 16 women live at the Danbury Federal Correctional Institution. The two groups met in the Stepping Stone gym one morning in mid-October so that the women could share their stories and what the stories have taught them.
The women, inmates at the prison’s minimum security camp, are participating in the “Choices” program, which helps them come to terms with their crimes, their decisions, and how both affected their families, themselves and society. The women “process” and discuss their choices, they write about it, and then they talk about it publicly. It is a diverse group of women. Some are in their 20s and 30s. Several are more than 50. One woman is 70. Their sentences range from four years to more than 30 years. Many were convicted of conspiracy to sell narcotics. One was convicted of money laundering and embezzlement. Others were imprisoned for bank and mail fraud. What they had in common was deep remorse and loss.
One 37-year-old said her grandparents raised her and her two brothers after her mother was incarcerated and her father died. The woman wound up in prison herself for selling drugs
“I am from the projects, so drugs were all around me,” she told the girls. “If I did not get arrested, I would not have stopped until someone killed me.” She detailed how her brothers have been convicted of murder. She has not seen her children. “All the pain I experienced, I am putting others through now,” she added. “I am ashamed where my actions have taken me.”
Many women spoke of the immense loss of their relationship with their children. One mother of two said she started dating a drug dealer when she was just 12. She moved to New York City with him. He cheated on her, and she began to abuse cocaine. Then she was arrested and convicted of selling drugs. “I lost 17 years to imprisonment,” she said. “I lost everything. But worst is that I lost the ability to be with my children.”
One of the women told the girls. “I lost my home, my business and the last 20 years. I lost the ability to be a mother and a grandmother. I would hate for you to wind up at Danbury prison.”
One girl asked, “I know what it is like to visit a parent or brother in jail. How does it feel to see your kids on a visit and then have to go back in?”
The answer came quick and simple: “It was the hardest thing,” said another woman. “I saw my kids grow up in prison.” She said she probably saw her children 10 times over 20 years.
The girls and the women shared many things and experiences, including backgrounds growing up in hard, down-on-their-luck urban neighborhoods. “I grew up on the streets,” one woman said. “I grew up using and selling drugs — that was the lifestyle.
“When you get to prison, you realize how disgusting it is and how disgusting the harm is that you are doing to your family, friends and community,” she continued. “It is a domino effect.”
Several of the women talked about being abused — physically and sexually — as they grew up, about parents and siblings who died or who went to prison, about drugs being everywhere, “I repeated everything, and re-lived the cycle,” one woman said. “The first few months in prison I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking it was a nightmare. It is not a nightmare. It is real.”
Yet despite the difficult environments the women grew up in, they expressed no doubt what got them into prison: their own bad decisions.
“Don’t make the same mistakes I made.”
“Make better choices.”
“This is the time to start over. Don’t let your past dictate your future.”
“Think before you act — don’t wind up where we are.”
“Think about the consequences of your actions, especially on your loved ones.”
The words hit the girls hard. Several girls left the room in tears, including one girl who sat with her own mother — who herself had just been released from prison. This mother-daughter pair came back into the gym a few minutes later and listened. Two of the girls asked if they could send letters to the women.
“This is a real eye-opener,” one of the girls told the women. “Thank you. This took a lot of courage. I will think before I act.”
After the women spoke to the girls about their experience, two of the girls sang a song they wrote about the pain of having lost one or both of their parents. One of the two girls, whose mother recently get out of prison and attended the event, was able to express her pain to the women in a way she was never able to do directly to her mother. The women shed tears as they recognized that this song could have been sung by one of their own children. It was apparent that the women and the girls understood the pain they shared, and they eagerly huddled together around tables for lunch and to have more intimate conversations.
Jeff Powers, Executive Assistant/Camp Administrator at the Danbury facility, created the program to help the women take responsibility. “It is very cathartic,” Mr. Powers said. “A lot of them are looking at things differently.” He said bringing the women to Stepping Stone is particularly meaningful to the women because almost all are mothers, and they have limited chances to interact with their own children. “By sharing their stories, they can help others from taking the same path,” he said. “This is one way they can reach out to kids. When they were given the opportunity with at risk kids, they were very excited.”
Tammy Sneed, the DCF director of girls’ services who arranged for the women to come to Stepping Stone, said the meeting was powerful. “Some of the girls have moms and dads in prison,” said Ms. Sneed. “They also saw themselves in the women and saw it as a last chance for themselves.” Ms. Sneed said the loss of family is particularly meaningful to the girls. “They see a direct connection to the loss of family and the decisions they make,” she said. “The point is that this is your life and your family on the line.”
The girls got it. Two of them, who serve on the Girls’ Advisory Board to help the Department improve how it serves girls, said the lesson was very clear.
“I could end up like one of them — losing my family and my freedom,” said 17-year-old Dominique C. of New Haven. “I could end up in the same predicament, if I continue to do what I do.
“I have to start thinking before I act,” she said.
Briana W., a 16-year-old from Meriden, said the women demonstrated how just one decision can change your life. “I’ve made wrong decisions, and they showed how important it is to go down the right path. It showed me the right path to go down.”
Reprinted with permission from the Department of Children and Families