In a recent nightmare, 8-year-old Jovina dreamt that her father got COVID-19. He was getting sicker, but she and her mother weren’t able to get there in time. “There,” in her father’s case, is a cell at the California Correctional Center (CCC) in Susanville, California, nearly 300 miles from where she lives in San Jose.
In Jovina’s mind are a swarm of worries about her father’s welfare, her mother Benee Vejar reports. If an earthquake shakes the Bay Area, Jovina says, “What if the building crushes in on him?” When she sees him on one of their infrequent, short video calls, her worries spike about his well-being. She “flips out” if he removes his mask, repeatedly asks him to wash his hands, and tells him how she longs for his embrace, declaring on a recent call, “Daddy, I want to squeeze you so bad!”
Recently Jovina refused to touch her food, telling her mother, “I don’t want to eat. I’m not feeling so good today. I miss my Dad. When are we going to be able to see him?”
A short while of waiting and torment later, and after 15 months of not being near him, a joyous visit with her father took place in June. However, like other children with incarcerated parents in California and around the country, Jovina has no clear sense of when she will be with her father again.
In the last year and a half, Jovina has had to cope with the added strain of living through a global pandemic, which, until recently, shut down family visits altogether. But she was already contending with the unpredictable and overwhelming stress of being separated from her father because he is incarcerated.
Jovina is among an estimated 5 million children in the United States who have had a parent incarcerated at some point in their childhood, according to Child Trends. Experiencing separation from a parent due to incarceration has long been identified as a childhood trauma in the landmark Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. The study tied this and nine other types of childhood trauma to chronic health conditions in adulthood.
The separation is excruciating for parents as well. Philip Melendez of California, who was formerly incarcerated, echoed the feeling of despair.
“I did not see my family for a year and a half, and I felt myself slipping away,” he said earlier this year at a townhall meeting on family visitation led by California Attorney General and former Assembly member Rob Bonta. Melendez, who has been out of prison for 3 years after serving a 20-year sentence, said that family visitation was a lifeline for him: “[My family] kept me focused on what I needed to do to come home.”