Building a Legacy of Strong Families

by Catherine Tijerina, Co-Founder/Executive Director at The RIDGE Project

Kawasaki disease?When the doctor recently diagnosed my daughter with Kawasaki disease, Ron and I were shocked and surprised, since we had never heard of the disease before.As we looked down at our feverish little girl, who had been sick for over a week, a seed of fear grew in my mind and traveled throughout my body."What on earth is Kawasaki disease?” I wondered, as the doctor began to explain that the disease was considered an event and not a life-style change for most of its victims.

What a relief to hear that, when treated quickly, the disease typically resolves completely and does not leave any permanent damage.If left untreated, however, it could cause permanent heart damage or even death.The rush of thoughts and emotions, running through my mind as the information sank in, ranged from fear, to relief as we knew what we were facing and, finally, to understanding of the importance of engaging as many experts as quickly as possible to ensure the best possible outcome for my daughter.

As we sat in the hospital room waiting to see if there would be any signs of permanent damage, I reflected on all the obstacles we have faced as a family.Hands-down the greatest obstacle we have had to overcome was Ron’s 15-year incarceration for a crime he did not commit. When the determination of "guilty” came from the jury, our lives were forever changed.It wasn’t really the physical separation that was the most difficult; it was the judgments cast upon all of us that created the greatest obstacles.My children went from being in an intact family to suddenly becoming not only socially fatherless, but also labeled as "undesirable” in society.

I watched as parents distanced their children from mine.I agonized for my sons as they moved through life with the bigotry of low expectations and the label of "child of a felon.”I encouraged them to rise above all the angry, bitter things said to them about their father, and grieved with them when others harshly judged them for their unwavering love of their father. Thankfully, I also had the opportunity to celebrate victory after victory as they learned the art of forgiveness and grace for those who allow ignorance and fear to keep them from helping others.

Incarceration is often a prognosis of death to a family, and I often argue this could be reversed if we mobilized efforts to support the families and children, instead of ostracizing them. The increased risks of violence, incarceration and generational fatherlessness for our children made us determined to do all we could to protect them and to keep them from becoming another statistic among the ruins left in the wake of incarceration.The epidemic of incarceration and subsequent societal discrimination is found in every walk of life, leaving millions of children crippled socially and emotionally.It is costing us more in human casualties than any war, and hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

Unfortunately, after all the money is spent, there is still no cure for the "disease” of being the child of a felon.Except for a few specialty programs in pockets across the country, little is being done to curb the social disparity that has created permanent damage for tens of millions of children of prisoners.That damage is a leading factor in generational cycles of poverty, crime and incarceration.

Kawasaki Disease is a scary event, but at least everyone is running to help. Imprisonment of a parent is a terrifying event, and everyone tramples the children in their hurry to get away.When a parent goes to prison, we should certainly be able to minimize the damage done to children and families by rushing in to provide support and every type of assistance available. Instead, we have spent decades ignoring the devastation to families and children, and we have reaped the consequences.We simply cannot afford to continue to view these families as disposable or unworthy.

Incidentally, by strengthening the family relationships of incarcerated parents, we do more than save one family.We also greatly reduce other side effects, including further victimization, by paving the way for a successful re-entry of the incarcerated parent, thereby creating a legacy of stronger, healthier families, safer communities and a more prosperous nation.


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