Speaking of Women's Rights: 02/13

Thursday, February 28, 2013

6 Days Before I Lost All My Rights to My Child Forever.

by guest blogger Shayne Rochester
intro by Lillian Hewko

When it comes to incarcerated parents rights, I am often asked: Why should we keep children with their parents who are criminals? The idea that a child can be better off without his or her parent who has broken the law is a common one, and I do believe this question comes from a concern for the children. This question reminds me of a great quote from a young person who was separated by his mother and interviewed in the eye-opening book All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated written by Nell Bernstein. The young person says: There was so much emphasis on me, supposedly, that they forgot about her... [w]hat would have helped me most is compassion for my mom.

Compassion is often the last thing we usually have for a parent who goes to prison. Maybe this is because when we think of a parent who goes to prison images of Hollywood prisoners come to mind and very few of us actually know and love someone who has gone to prison. As Shayne Rochester’s story shows us below, people who go to prison are more than what we see on TV, they are fathers, community members, business owners, and leaders.  ~ Lillian Hewko

My name is Shayne Rochester. I’m a 38 year old father and Veteran Parent. A Veteran Parent is a parent who has successfully navigated the child welfare system. Before I got involved in the child welfare system I had a family, coached soccer, had a high end custom cabinet shop where I employed four employees.  I had a good reputation in the Seattle community. However just over a year ago I was only 6 days from losing my parental rights forever.

My journey with Child Protective Services (CPS) began in 2009, a year after the end of a nine-year relationship. I was helping a past employee build his home in North Seattle, where I fell twenty-two feet onto my face, completely blowing out my wrist. I had to have full frontal lobe reconstruction. I had never known depression before my accident but I was unable to work… and that was who I had always been.  I soon became very depressed and my depression lead me deep into drugs.  This path of addiction starts with one exception and then another and another until you don’t even know who you are anymore.
That path lead me to prison. I was charged under the liability accomplice act for an armed robbery. First time to prison and sentenced to 73 months. Meanwhile I was served with notice that a Child Protective Services case for my youngest son was being opened, and so my fight to keep my son began from prison.

It killed me that I was unable to nurture and protect my son. Even though I had a CPS case and a service plan that included visitation with my son, I was sent across the state where due to the distance, it was impossible to visit with my son. In fact, I only saw my son once in that first 13 months, and was given no ability to have any phone contact due to lack of resources.

In order to fight for my son, I spent six hours a day, six days a week in the law library, reading books, sometimes three times out loud to myself in order to comprehend them and learn my rights. I wrote daily kites (letters) and talked with my counselors about the services I needed to complete in order to comply with CPS. This was a frivolous fight as the counselors refused to acknowledge my CPS case plan.

It was extremely challenging to get access to a staff phone in order to contact my social worker and attorney.  The rare times, when my counselor would arrange a call, it was never private and it was considered a favor. Luckily, I was able to complete a few services while in prison such as therapy, narcotics anonymous meetings and a parenting class, but they were not nearly enough to comply with my CPS plan.

Meanwhile I got news I had won my appeal but that I would have to wait in prison for another year while the Supreme Court made its decision on my appeal. I had to keep trying to get my son back from prison with little resources to help other than my public defender who was compelled to help me! 

I eventually won my appeal and I was released after 28 months in prison and just six days before my parental rights were going to be terminated forever and my youngest son adopted.  Just six days after my release I found myself in dependency court begging the judge not to take my son.  Explaining that I tried to do all I could from prison but the services and resources were never made available to me.  I begged him that ”I was out” and I was available to parent. The judge gave me a chance and now I’ve been reunified with my son for a year.

I was obviously blessed through this whole process. Unlike many parents I had access to my attorney, I had access to a legal library at my facility and the timing worked out in my favor by just six days! But there are many other families struggling through the child welfare system and the prison system that need HB 1284 and SB 5460.  Parents in such circumstances NEED more time and special considerations.

I don’t know where my son or I would be today if I had lost him. I do know that with my son back I am currently the Co-facilitator of Snohomish County Parent Advocacy Committee, we provide a “Life During CPS” support group.  I am also part of the Statewide Parent Advocacy Committee working to better outcomes of families in the child welfare system across Washington.  On top of that I am father to five, a husband, and a college student.

I thank you for this opportunity to share my story and I appreciate whatever you are able to do to support incarcerated parents and all parents in the child welfare system.

Thank You.

Shayne Rochester is a peer to peer mentor and legislative advocate.  He enjoys building things with the boys and going to his son Ty’s Karate Tournaments, building things with Philip (who is now in college and just got his first job), and riding bikes with Brandon. Shayne is extremely excited that after hard work in proving himself since his release he has recently re-connected with his brother and his oldest son.

Here’s how to show your support for HB 1284 and SB 5460:

Help get HB 1284 passed
Please write you representatives and urge them to pass HB 1284, you can find yours by entering your home address here.

Help get SB 5460 out of Committee
The deadline to get bills out of committee is Friday March 1st! Please write the Senate Ways and Means Committee member by clicking hereclick on each Senator’s name, then on “e-mail” and enter your address and message (see samples below.)

Show your support of the bill here by "approving" it.

I am writing in support of HB 1284 (or SB 5460), which will give the court the authority and guidance necessary to take into consideration the unique circumstances of incarcerated parents  and delay the current timelines when a parent’s incarceration, prior incarceration, or participation in a residential drug treatment program is a significant factor for the child’s continued out of home placement.

[Add personal reason/story for your support].

Keeping families together keeps our communities safer and more supported as family reunification is linked to reduced recidivism, greater family stability and improved emotional response for children. This bill will allow a specific and individualized family assessment and uphold what is in the best interest of the child.


Friday, February 22, 2013

Family Un-Friendly

Last Sunday, the New York Times ran a terrific piece “Why Gender Equality Stalled” by Stephanie Coontz of the Evergreen State College.  If you haven’t read it yet – do it!  Professor Coontz examines why we still have to fight so hard for women’s equality, even on the 50th anniversary of the publication of Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique.

While the article is outstanding, what struck me the most was this map accompanying the piece showing which countries have adopted policies for paid maternal leave:

map source

Yes, that’s right.  America is almost alone in failing to guarantee any paid leave from work to families with new children – putting us in ranks of Papua New Guinea, Liberia, and Suriname. 

Considering how far the U.S. is lagging, you’d think we’d be trying to address this problem urgently.  But instead, we’re fighting just to avoid going backwards, at least in Washington State.

Consider what’s happening now in Olympia. 

In 2007, Legal Voice and our allies won passage of a Family Leave Insurance bill in Washington.  The legislation was modest in scope.  It provided for only up to 5 weeks of paid family leave after the birth or adoption of a child, with a weekly benefit of $250.   Still, it was a major step forward; at the time, only California provided any form of family & medical leave insurance to workers in its state (New Jersey has since adopted a similar program).

However, the legislation did not include a funding mechanism, and implementation of the program was delayed after the Great Recession hit in 2008.

But now, a proposal has been introduced in the Legislature that would not only provide a funding source, but would expand coverage.  This legislation (House Bill 1457/Senate Bill 5292) would  authorize funding for Family & Medical Leave Insurance (FMLI) through a payroll premium starting at $1 per week for the average worker and their employer.  It would also expand FMLI to provide 12 weeks to carefor a worker or family member’s serious health condition and 12 weeks to care for a new child.

The bill ought to be a no-brainer (look again at the map!).  But instead of supporting this proposal, some legislators are actually trying to move us backwards by pushing a bill to repeal even the modest 2007 Family Leave Insurance law. 

And they have the support of the Seattle Times, which has urged repealing the program on the grounds that “the state should focus its limited resources on higher priorities” and “paying employees to take time off is a decision best left to individual companies.”

Really?  It’s not a high priority for the state to help families when they have a new child?  We should be more like Papua New Guinea than the rest of the world in enacting sensible work-family policies?

Hypocritically, so many opponents of family and medical leave insurance also oppose a woman’s right to choose.  They want to force a woman to continue her pregnancy, yet would deny her family basic economic security and support after the child is born.  To paraphrase Barney Frank, they’re “pro-life” only from conception to birth.

So if you’re in Washington, take a moment to contact your legislators and urge them to support Family & Medical Leave Insurance (HB 1457/SB 5292) and to oppose legislation to repeal the law (SB 5159).  Family economic security should be everyone’s concern, not just a benefit available only to high-wage workers who are least likely to need it.   

Friday, February 8, 2013

Let your LOVE act: Support HB 1284 and SB 5460

by Lillian Hewko

Valentine’s Day is slowly approaching and love is in the air. Whether that holiday makes you want to gag and run clear for the hills or sing your love from the highest mountain, we at Legal Voice ask you to think of that family love that can be as powerful, transformative and complex as romantic love.

Instead of boxes of chocolate and fancy dinners, for many faiths and traditions, love is expressed through compassion. I was reminded how love and compassion can drive action last month as I found myself at two Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebrations in Seattle; one with the amazing Angela Davis and the other with the amazing Michelle Alexander. Both speakers connected celebrations of MLK Day with our current problem of “Mass Incarceration.” Both speakers made a connection to honoring Mr. King’s “dream” by looking at our criminal justice system that incarcerates more people than any other nation, and urging us as citizens to do something about it. Mr. King said: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” Today, we ask you to take some time to let your love act and support HB 1284 and SB 5460 (see below), which will help change some of the legal structures that affect our incarcerated parents who are working hard to maintain ties to their children.

Each year, millions of parents are removed from their communities, separated from their children and families, and sent to prison or jail. Most prisoners serve relatively short sentences for non-violent crimes. Many serve sentences less than five years, many serve sentences of less than two years. No matter the number of years, the time spent away missing moments of childhood can’t be recaptured-and these missed experiences may be crucial for a child’s well being and development.

For many of us, especially those who are parents, the idea of permanently losing a child may be one of your largest nightmares. For many of the incarcerated women I work with at the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW), this is a reality. A woman I work with, Ms. S, had her rights terminated one month before she became eligible to apply to an alternative sentencing program that would have placed her in the community with her children just two months later.

Ms. S is not alone. An estimated 85% of women in prison are mothers, and over half have children under 18. Due to our current child welfare timelines and the inability of our systems to respond adequately to their needs, not only do these women miss special moments, but they risk losing their parental rights permanently.

The timeline was created in 1997 at a federal level with the intent to help children find safe, stable and permanent homes.  But the enactment of the law did not predict the continued rise in our prison population since 1990, where the number of people behind bars for drug laws alone has increased twelvefold.  The unintended consequence is that incarcerated parents in the child welfare system are now losing their children at twice the rate of those parents not involved in the criminal justice system. To offset this problem, many states including New York, have amended their laws to provide an additional exception to the timeline for incarcerated parents. HB 1284 and SB 5460 would do the same.

Many inmates experience significant life changes showing us that people do change and families can reunite. Because of the dearth of alternative resources for individuals struggling with addiction, for some, prison may be the first time they receive treatment for drug addiction or mental illness. Prison may also remove those who have been survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse from their abuser.

This law will in no way prevent the state from stepping in when necessary to terminate parental rights in order to provide children with safe, stable and permanent adoptive homes. What is in the best interest of the child is always of the utmost importance.

Instead, it will recognize that just like uniquely shaped puzzle pieces, no family facing parental incarceration has the same experience.  We need laws that are more responsive to the special and unique challenges these families face. HB 1284 and SB 5460 will allow the more individualized family specific determinations that are needed in these difficult cases.

Mothers don’t stop loving and caring for their children because they enter prison, as they overcome addiction, or as they survive domestic violence.

Let’s let our love act, and as Mr. King suggested, fling more than a coin. Let’s identify with the struggle these women face. We have only been doing this since 1997—we can see the unintended consequences, now let’s show our love for these mothers and do something about it!

-- Ways to get involved --

Take 2 minutes: Make a public comment (NEW for 2013, 1000 characters) on the bill here

Take 5 minutes: Call or write an email to each of the committee members. 

Spend half a day with us: Attend the hearing MONDAY FEBRUARY 11th, 10 am and sign in support of SB 5460!

Human Services & Corrections - 02/11/13 10:00 am
Senate Hearing Rm 1
J.A. Cherberg Building
Olympia, WA

Sample Email/Comment:

Dear Madam Chair and Committee Members,

I am writing in support of SB 5460, which will give the court the authority and guidance necessary to take into consideration the unique circumstances of incarcerated parents and delay the current timelines when a parent’s incarceration, prior incarceration, or participation in a residential drug treatment program is a significant factor for the child’s continued out of home placement. Incarcerated parents and their children have unique cases with significant barriers and no one family is the same. This bill will allow a specific and individualized family assessment.

[Add personal reason/story for your support].

Mothers don’t stop loving and caring for their children because they enter prison, as they over-come addiction, or as they survive domestic violence. Unnecessarily separating families is devastating to children in foster care, their incarcerated parents, and our communities

Keeping families together keeps our communities safer and more supported as family reunification is linked to reduced recidivism, greater family stability and improved emotional response for children.



Lillian Hewko is an Equal Justice Works Fellow at Legal Voice.  She is working to implement a project she developed to provide legal education to incarcerated mothers and implement litigation and legislative strategies to reduce the chances of family separation in Washington State.

photo credit