15-year-old Keith Tingman remembers his tenth birthday better than any other birthday before or since: that was the day he watched his mom get arrested after being falsely accused of stealing someone's wallet.
Ultimately, both of Keith's parents were convicted of possession of stolen property. His dad served ten months in Riker's Island, and his mom was put on probation. Keith is far from alone. A recent University of Michigan study shows that among African-American children born in 1990, more than one-quarter have had a parent serve time by the time they turn 14 years old.
Host Introduction: The dramatic rise in the U.S. prison population over the last quarter century has come with an equally steep growth in the number of kids with incarcerated parents. A recent study shows that among African-American children born in 1990, more than one-quarter have had a parent go to jail or prison by the time they become teenagers. 15-year-old Radio Rookie Keith Tingman knows just how difficult it is for kids when their parents are arrested.
Narration: My mom is short and pretty. She's a respectful person--not the type to hurt somebody's feelings or do something bad.
Keith: Mom what you making?
Mom: I just took some steak out the oven.
Narration: She cooks dinner for us every night.
Mom: And some rice and peas, I'll make that later.
Narration: We play a lot together. When I'm in a funny mood I fake punch her on her side and she does it back. Or sometimes my mom and her best friend bother me...
Keith: I didn't even make a muscle yet!
Narration: ...like asking me to make a muscle.
Mom and Friend. Wowwww!
Narration: My dad is a DJ. He could be in the living room throwing and scratching songs. Or he could be watching my little brother, he's autistic. But five years ago something bad happened and I was separated from my dad and my mom.
Keith: I'm Keith I'm a Radio Rookie reporter I'm going to interview my mom. So today I want to ask you about the incident that happened on my birthday April 25, 2004. Like, how did you feel that day?
A: Oh wow. Sad, hurt, scared, nervous.
Narration: On my 10th birthday we were walking up a hill from the supermarket near our house. And two guys stopped us and asked us questions about a lost wallet. We told them we didn't know where it was and they started accusing us anyway. Two policemen came out of their car and asked my mom questions.
Mom: The cop goes "Wait a minute, wait a minute, you robbed somebody." I'm like "What!?"
Narration: Then they just put the cuffs on her.
Mom: And I seen all the anger in your face and that's right. Right now, umm...It's getting a little emotional for me right now, because I remember that day clearly like... For a person who never did nothing, never committed any crime or anything like that, to be charged with something like that.
Narration: I get frustrated seeing my mom cry and thinking of her sadness about what happened. My mom only cries once in a blue.
Mom: I want to work, I don't have a job, people tend to look at your record. All the reference I have. They don't look at that, they look at possession of stolen property. What about you? How did you feel?
Keith: I felt mad, I was angry
Mom: Why was you angry?
Keith: I didn't want to see you get taken to jail.
Narration: I never talked to anyone outside of my family about it until this year. I started going to The Next Generation Center, a friendly place for teenagers. They have programs like drumming, arts, and cooking. Kids also hang out play cards like UNO.
Girl 1: I am not cheating!
Narration: In the center, I had a feeling other kids had parents who were incarcerated. So I went and asked them.
Keith: Do you know any part of your family who been incarcerated?
Narration: I felt nervous because I'm not used to going up to people and asking them questions.
Boy 1: I could say more than half, including my pops. But he was gone for a while when he came out he missed out on a lot. He felt he had to catch up on that. So he wound up leaving the house.
Girl 2: I'm always used to having father around--I always call him up daddy come get me I want to go shopping, let's go to the acarde. But I can't do that because my father is in jail. So I feel sad about it.
Boy 2: Unique! I need an ID.
Narration: I know this one kid from summer school. We sat at the same table, but we didn't know much about each other back then.
Keith: Alright, I had a story in my family was taken away from me because they was arrested. Do you ever have an experience like that?
Boy 2: Yes, my mother and father had a fight and I sit there and watch them. As the cops came I was sitting in the house by myself no parents until they came back.
Keith: How did that affect you?
Boy 2: It affected me bad because I had to sit there with me and my sisters crying. There was nobody watching us but our brother which had to go to work every day.
Narration: Every day for ten months, I couldn't see my dad and I was really missing him. My mom only stayed in jail for a day. My father missed everything: when I started school, Christmas, my mom's birthday. But, I didn't tell anyone at school because I was embarrassed...kids might have teased me, or something. "Ohhhh, your dads in jail!!" I wanted to keep it to myself. And so did my friend from summer school.
Boy 2: I guess it was something inside for me and the family to do. Not everyone else to know.
Keith: Did you go and see him?
Boy 2: No. I never went to go see my father because I was afraid.
Narration: I remember I was nervous the first time I visited my dad. We took a long bus ride to Riker's Island. There were so many gates for the guards to open. The guards walked us to him. My dad wore a grey uniform. When we said goodbye he hugged and kissed me.
Sophia: Now let me ask you a tough question. Are you scared your mom and dad are going to get away again?
Keith: Yes. I would be scared.
Narration: Sophia Strong works at the Fortune Society. She helps families when parents are incarcerated.
Sophia: But they're not in the tank.
Narration: She has a fish tank in her office,
Sophia: I got two missing fish, the bigger one too.
Narration: But she couldn't find some of her fish.
Sophia: Do you think someone came in robbed them?
Narration: Anyway, she told me there was a guy whose four year old daughter was searched when she came to visit him in jail.
Sophia: This is not a good world for kids. It's depressing, it's institutionalized, it's formalized. It's not a kid's world, period. It is a form of trauma to be separated from a parent. This is the kind of stuff that doesn't really leave you.
Narration: I asked my sister Keyorra if she thought what happened on my birthday changed me.
Keyorra: You kind of changed a little, but I think it's because you thought it was your fault. You felt guilt.
Narration: I do feel guilty about what happened. We wouldn't have been out that day if it wasn't my birthday.
Keyorra: Maybe it made you think different of your father.
Keith: Why you say that?
Keith: Because he was the cause.
Narration: I was shocked because she never mentioned she thought he picked up the wallet.
Keith: Wait, why do you say he was the cause?
Narration: She blanked out for a little bit. I don't think she wanted to go into more details.
Keith: You can skip that question.
Narration: It's kind of awkward to me also because I believe he's innocent.
Dad: That's one of the baddest days that happened to me in my life. If I could rewind that day and fix that day it would be way much better. That was also your birthday. It turned into a horrible day, one of the horriblest days of my life.
Keith: How did you feel in jail?
Dad: Oh man. I felt depressed. I would phone y'all every night. Sometimes a lot of the nights y'all got a lot of frustration out of me.
Narration: My mother told me, "don't think of it as going to jail, think about it like he's on a vacation." I tried to believe it. Then one day in fifth grade I came home and my mom called me and asked me for something. And I didn't go to her. I was about to ask her "what do you want from me?" Then I tilted my head to the side because I saw someone standing next to her and it was my father. I ran to him and gave him a big hug. For WNYC, I'm Rookie Reporter Keith Tingman.