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What happens to a child when parents go to prison

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Antoine Thompson held his 6-month-old daughter, Aziyah, in his arms as he appeared by video conference to plead guilty to dealing drugs from the back room of his Roanoke clothing store.

U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski asked that someone care for the infant so the defendant would not be distracted during the Oct. 5, 2021, hearing. “That was an awfully cute baby I saw on Zoom,” the judge said at the end of the proceeding.

Although Thompson was able to place Aziyah in the safe hands of her great grandmother for the hearing, her continued well-being is now in question.

Next Wednesday, Thompson — who for the past year has been the primary and sole caretaker of his daughter while free on bond — will return to court to face a likely seven-year prison term.

If he is taken into custody that day, what will happen to Aziyah?

The child’s mother, Xylina Barlow, is currently in the Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia, serving time for a drug offense unconnected to Thompson’s.

With other family and friends unable to care for Aziyah, Thompson is asking Urbanski that whatever prison term is imposed, he be allowed to remain free on bond until Barlow’s release, scheduled for next July.

Federal prosecutors oppose Thompson’s request. They are citing his previous criminal record in asking that he be locked up immediately after his sentence is pronounced.

Preparing for the worst, assistant federal public defender Christine Lee has been working with her client to find a suitable temporary home for Aziyah, who is now one and a half years old. No such arrangements have been finalized.

“It’s just such a sad, sad situation,” Lee said during the October 2021 hearing.

“These are the child’s very early months. He [Thompson] has been bonding with the child, and it’s just…it’s such a sad…I’m actually getting choked up,” Lee said, according to a transcript of the hearing.

“It’s such a sad commentary on the state of the world that he and Xylina have to go to prison because of choices they made,” she continued. “And I’m going to ask the court not to have the child suffer unduly by losing both parents.”

A troubled childhoodAntoine Thompson had the kind of childhood he hopes his daughter can avoid.

The oldest of seven children, he grew up in a Seattle home where his father was often gone — first to the military, then to prison for robbery, then to drug addiction.

His mother was also an addict, and died when Thompson was 15 of a brain aneurysm that was attributed to her use of crack cocaine.

Thompson, now 40, did not have far to fall.

After his family moved to Roanoke, he was forced into the role of surrogate father for his younger brothers and sisters. He began to sell drugs to supplement the family income.

With that activity came more than a dozen relatively minor brushes with the law. Then, at the age of 19, he was arrested and charged with second-degree murder in a drug-related carjacking.

Although he did not fire the fatal shot, Thompson pleaded guilty, telling a Roanoke judge in 2002: “I’ll be a man and take responsibility for what I’ve done.” He served 15 years in prison, “and emerged with arguably fewer resources than he had when he went in,” Lee wrote in a sentencing memorandum.

Then, on April 29, 2021, something happened that changed his life: Aziyah was born.

“I love my sons to death,” Thompson said of her two older half-brothers during a recent interview. “But it’s different with a daughter. She softened me.”

“My daughter’s birth made me look at the situation in a different way.”

The way Thompson sees things now, his return to prison is all but assured by sentencing guidelines. Lee and federal prosecutors have made a joint recommendation of seven years. All that he’s asking for is the time to care for Aziyah until her mother is released and can take his place.

“Just until she comes home,” Thompson said. “I think I don’t care what happens after that. We can just get it over with. I know I’m going.”

Prison is not Thompson’s primary concern.

“No, it doesn’t scare me,” he said. “What scares me is I’m losing my kids.”

The risk to childrenChildren of incarcerated parents are exposed to nearly five times as many adverse experiences — such as abuse, neglect, mental illness and substance abuse — compared to those whose parents are not locked up, according to a study supported by the Foundation for Child Development.

Research conducted by Kristin Turney, a professor at the University of California at Irvine, found the danger is greatest among kids younger than six.

“There’s certainly a growing body of evidence about the harm of a parent’s incarceration on childhood development and well-being,” said Rebecca Shlafer, an associate professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota Medical School.

Shlafer, who is familiar with Thompson’s case from her contact with Lee, said many children are able to overcome the odds.

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“Having an incarcerated parent is by no means a life sentence for the next generation,” she said.

“But what’s so unfortunate is that it raises the risk. What is the next domino that falls for this family? What will happen if the father is not available to care for this child?”

Although a toddler is not likely to have a cognitive memory of when his or her parent is sent to prison, the impact of losing a key support system — “Who do I go to when I’m scared? Who do I go to when I’m hungry?” — can influence their future development, Shlafer said.

“All subsequent development is built on top of this attachment,” she said. “You can’t build the rest of your house if the foundation is rocky.”

About five million children in the United States, approximately 7% of all minors, have experienced the incarceration of a parent who was in their home at some point, according to a study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Thompson has been free on bond for 17 months with no major problems, his attorney said.

“He’s had a lot of eyes and ears on him, presumably, without incident,” Shlafer said. “I don’t think you can argue that there’s a risk to community safety” if he were to remain free a little longer as a full-time father.

“The risk of harm is low, from what I understand of the case,” she said, “And the benefit to the child is high.”

Prosecutors to seek incarcerationFederal prosecutors say it’s time for Thompson to start pulling time.

In a sentencing memorandum filed in September, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kari Munro wrote that his possession of “extremely pure” methamphetamine came when he was still on probation for his murder charge.

After making small sales to an informant in November 2020, Thompson led investigators to the Sole’D Out Fashion Boutique, which he ran with his now estranged wife.

In the back room of the 11th Street Northwest business, where Thompson worked as a barber, nearly 200 grams of methamphetamine was found in the pockets of a jacket draped over the back of a chair.

Lee would later write in court papers that as Thompson and his wife struggled with the clothing business, he “turned back to the one certain source of income, controlled substances.”

At about the same time, he began a relationship with Barlow. Last year, about six months after giving birth to Aziyah, Barlow began a two-year sentence for her involvement in a separate drug case.

Evidence showed that Barlow had hooked up with an old friend from high school, who recruited her to pick up his drugs from other states and drive them back to Roanoke. In 2020, she was stopped for a traffic offense while driving through Kansas and charged with ferrying drugs that she had been given in Las Vegas.

As for Thompson, “the government appreciates his dedication to family, but many defendants find themselves in similar shoes, facing prison during child-rearing years,” Munro wrote in court papers.

“Presumably, had this been a significant enough concern for Thompson and Barlow, they would not have been involved in separate drug conspiracies at corresponding times, at least one of them during the pregnancy period.”

‘A father is full-time’When two parents have to go to prison simultaneously, it is not unheard of for judges to impose staggered sentences.

That allows one defendant to serve time while the other remains free on bond to care for their child. When the first parent is released, the second one begins their term.

How frequently that happens is hard to measure. But Lee’s research of cases in Western Virginia found two sets of parents who were allowed to serve staggered sentences.

In one case, U.S. District Judge James Jones allowed a husband and wife convicted of tax fraud in Abingdon to serve their sentences one after the other, so their children would not be deprived of parental care. In the other case, concerns about the fate of two family pets, a dog and a cat, was one of the arguments made for staggered sentences.

Those defendants were convicted of white-collar crimes and had no prior records.

Thompson, by comparison, “has a serious criminal history, and committed a much more dangerous set of crimes,” Munro wrote.

While admitting what he did, Thompson says it was more the product of his environment than a desire to be a “menace to society.” When he was released from prison in 2015, that environment had grown even more challenging.

“When you get locked up as a child, when you come out you’re still a child,” he said. “You still have a child’s mind, but you have to learn how to be a man.”

“I didn’t want to be in the streets, I didn’t want to be a full-time drug dealer. I did that to take care of my family. It’s not like I was sitting there stacking up $1,000 just to look at it. $1,000 is the mortgage.”

Although Thompson’s two sons are living with his estranged wife, he helps pay for their upbringing and remains an important figure in their lives.

He said he has learned what it means to be a father.

“A dad is different from being a father,” he said. “A dad is a friend; some people will say ‘My dad is cool.’ He’ll buy you some shoes but then you won’t see him for 30 days. A father is full time.”

More than anything else, he worries about losing that full-time job.

In prison, “I can’t be there for my kids like I am now,” he said. “It’s not just me you’re locking up. You’re locking my kids up, too.”

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