This is the first report in an investigative series on the lives of children whose parents are or have been behind bars. Credit: Photo by Joe Gallo

If you spotted “Derek” walking down the street in his Austin neighborhood, you’d probably think he was a normal teenager with typical adolescent problems—homework, basketball and a little brother who sometimes gets on his nerves.

And you’d be mostly right about the 15-year-old freshman, who has a smile that outweighs his slight frame.

But there’s a catch. Derek is being raised by a 59-year-old great aunt on his father’s side who has cared for him since he was 9. His little brother was just a baby when the boys moved from Minnesota back to Chicago where most of their family lives. Their mother’s family had major drug problems, according to Derek’s aunt.

“My social worker said I couldn’t stay with my mom or grandma anymore,” Derek says. While it’s unclear exactly why the boys’ mother wasn’t able to care for them, it is obvious why Derek’s dad wasn’t available. He has served five stints in prison on drug-related charges since 1990, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections, and he is now under court supervision since his release a year ago after serving close to 12 months for narcotics possession.

Derek sees his father occasionally, but his aunt prefers to keep contact to a minimum because she suspects drug use and other dangerous activities in the neighborhood where the father lives.

Derek has mixed feelings about his dad. At times, he seems resentful because “he’s not helping us and nobody is trying to help us.” Then later, he will talk about missing his father and wanting to hang out with him.

‘Comfort zone’

Meanwhile, Derek has other things on his mind, like trying out for his school’s basketball team and doing homework for French and algebra, one of his favorite classes. Back in elementary school, Latonya Brown was Derek’s math and language arts teacher. Citing confidentiality, she won’t discuss how Derek performed as a student, but notes that more and more children in Chicago’s public schools have parents who are incarcerated.

These children will discuss with teachers their feelings about their parents being behind bars, “but you have to establish a comfort zone first,” Brown says.

Derek’s aunt is supporting the boys on little more than $1,000 a month in disability payments she receives for herself. She worries about both boys but tries to stay positive. “I’m confident that [Derek’s] going to bring me a diploma from the 12th grade,” she says.

Curtis Lawrence is a freelance writer and director of the Journalism Graduate Program at Columbia College Chicago.

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