DeKALB – DeKalb resident Laquanda Hernet is still learning how to be a better parent to her 4-year-old son, Coreon, after spending time in jail and struggling with alcoholism.
Hernet has been free since Dec. 13 after having been arrested on a charge of aggravated driving under the influence. She is living at Hope Haven in DeKalb, and using the skills she has learned at the DeKalb County Jail’s parenting class and the county’s drug court program for better structure.
“I don’t get mad like I used to,” Hernet said. “I count to three so [Coreon] knows mom’s not playing.”
Officials said that structure is necessary to parent an increasing population of children with incarcerated mothers. A report from the U.S. Department of Justice shows the female inmate population at jails nationwide increased 10.9 percent from mid-2010 to 2013, growing by an average of about 1 percent a year from 2005 to 2013.
Studies have shown that living without their mother can be detrimental to a child’s health and can even lead them to jail as they grow older. Children from newborns to 5-year-olds whose mothers are in jail are more susceptible to toxic stress and trauma. It can significantly change their brain chemistry and create mental health and behavioral problems, said Ann Adalist-Estrin, director of the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated at Rutgers University-Camden.
Toxic stress is defined as continuous stress not tied to a singular event such as a car accident or death of a loved one, Adalist-Estrin said.
She said the best ways to reduce this stress in young children are for the incarcerated mothers to have a responsible caregiver, tell children the truth about their jail stay and to keep in touch while they’re in jail.
“One or two months [without a mother] is a very long time for them,” Adalist-Estrin said. “There can be a lot of lost feelings that can really create harm.”
Coreon was with his father when Hernet was in jail and never saw her, limiting their communication to over the phone. Hernet and Coreon’s father share joint custody of their son.
When Hernet got out of jail after about 2½months, Coreon was shy at first. Since then, he’s become very attached. He follows Hernet everywhere, she said.
Hernet is cherishing the time she has with Coreon while her charges are pending; she hasn’t thought about the fact that she faces three years in prison if she fails the drug court program. If she successfully finishes the program, the felony aggravated DUI charge will be amended to a misdemeanor.
Hernet reads books to her son almost every day, and Coreon gives his mother multiple hugs and kisses while she reads to him.
“Our bond is a little bit better,” she said. “Now he tells me more, ‘Mommy, I love you. You’re so nice.’ We spend more time together.”
Officials said the chances of mothers going back to jail decrease when they have the necessary support behind them.
Ryan Shanahan, senior program associate with Vera Institute of Justice, regularly researches programs aimed toward connecting those in jail with their families, such as allowing more visits to jail.
“When people have a strong support network, there are better outcomes while they are incarcerated,” Shanahan said. “They behave better, they follow the rules, they meet expectations.”
Kasi Gunderson is trying to follow the rules as a participant in the county’s drug program. Like Hernet, she was also a regular in the jail parenting program.
Gunderson had a minor setback when she was prescribed Tylenol for a toothache and failed her drug test, sending her back to jail.
Since being in jail and living at a halfway house, Gunderson has moved back into her Sandwich home and is caring for her 10-year-old son. She does not have full custody of her 8-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son, who are both with their fathers.
While she acknowledges she made parenting mistakes as a crack-cocaine addict, Gunderson said she’s learning through her experiences. She is accused of robbing Casey’s General Store in Somonauk in December 2012 with her son’s toy gun, court records show. In unrelated cases, she also was charged with residential burglary and theft.
If Gunderson successfully completes the drug court program, the armed robbery charge would be dropped. If she fails, she faces 10 years in prison.
Gunderson said the only thing she can do now is be there more often for her children physically, emotionally and mentally.
“That’s all I can do: Be more open to their needs and wants,” Gunderson said. “Take it one day at a time.”