By Bonnie Miller Rubin | Read the Chicago Tribune article
Samantha Roque rummaged through a pile of boxes Thursday until she located the frothy lime-green outfit she had bought.
"I had so much fun picking this one out," she said, displaying the merchandise. "Every little girl should have a tutu."
The Roosevelt University senior may have done the shopping, but all Roque knows about the recipient is that she is 3 years old, lives on the South Side and her mother is at Dwight Correctional Center, a prison about 80 miles away.
Celebrating the holiday while a parent is incarcerated is a reality for more American families this year than ever. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the number of female prisoners in the U.S. has doubled since 1990. Three-quarters of those are mothers, with most having children under 18.
The tutu-and-leggings ensemble is just part of the bounty being wrapped up by Roosevelt students and faculty. The inaugural project aims to make Christmas just a little brighter for a small group of these kids by buying gifts and delivering them in the name of their mothers.
"It's so easy for children to feel that their mother is gone," Smith said. "To know that Mom is thinking of them and loves them is vitally important to their well-being."
Nationwide, the number of women in prisons has steadily increased over the last two decades, mostly due to stiffer drug sentencing, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. In Illinois, there are about 2,900 female prisoners, according to the Illinois Department of Correction's 2010 annual report.
The consequences of a mother's absence can affect even the youngest children, Smith said. "The separation trauma can be so great for toddlers that they will just stop eating. It's like, 'I won't take a bottle from anyone else, so now you have to give her back to me.'"
The Roosevelt project started last month after a former inmate spoke to the school's Criminal Justice Society. The mother of five related the challenges of keeping her family together while she was in prison, especially after the children's guardians — first, a maternal grandmother, then a maternal grandfather — died in 2001. The state threatened to split up the children, sending them to foster care homes throughout the state. Eventually, an aunt stepped forward to care for the children.
"I really thought I was going to literally die from heartache … the pain was unbearable," said the 45-year-old woman, who served a seven-year sentence for cocaine possession and is now doing her court supervision in a local recovery home. She has been clean for almost three years — her longest stretch of sobriety since she was a freshman in high school.
I had an addiction … but I never stopped loving my kids," said the mother, who asked that her name not be used because it might affect her employment prospects and to spare her children any potential embarrassment.
Tana McCoy and LaDonna Long, two Roosevelt criminal justice professors, worked with Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers to identify 15 Chicago-area children whose mothers are incarcerated. They solicited Christmas lists from caregivers and collected donations — about $120 per child — from students, staff and others.
"These kids are victims too," McCoy said. "They just get forgotten … and many will receive nothing."
The lists tell their own story. Although cutting-edge sneakers and jeans make a showing, they are not as popular as more practical items, such as coats, gloves and scarves. One preteen displayed the conflicting emotions of puberty with her appeal for both a Justin Bieber CD and a Barbie doll.
The most extravagant wish? A game system. The most heartbreaking? It's a tossup between the 15-year-old who requested deodorant and the grandmother who asked for disposable diapers.
Amid the wrapping paper, tape and bows, Roque's little girl has amassed several boxes, which includes not just clothes, but a lifelike baby doll.
"I really got into it," Roque said. "I just ran to all the sales."
Ana Fleming, too, knew how to stretch her budget. She was shopping for a newborn — which might be perplexing for some college students, but not for the sophomore, who is the mother of a toddler. "I had a pretty good idea of what to buy."
All agreed that such personal giving infused the season with more meaning than merely writing out a check.
"I found myself regularly tearing up," McCoy said. "I even put up a tree."
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