CHOWCHILLA — Ten-year-old Angelique Robinson understands that her mother once used drugs and is serving a life sentence as a three-strikes offender.
"She's kind of a bad person," she says of her mother, Sheri Robinson. In the next breath, though, she says she misses Robinson's laugh, how she picks her up every time they see each other.
When Angelique was 11 months old, Robinson dozed off, drunk on alcohol and high on cocaine, and the infant fell from a fourth-story apartment window. She broke her legs and fractured her hip. Robinson was given five years' probation for the incident, and Angelique was sent to live with a foster parent.
Still, when she learned that she could take a four-hour trip to the state prison in Chowchilla this year to visit Robinson, who is serving time for receiving stolen property, Angelique was ecstatic.
"No matter what might have happened, it's still Mom," said Natalie Keese, a juvenile diversion counselor with the Torrance Police Department and Angelique's therapist.
They are just one daughter and one mother, but the story of Angelique and Sheri Robinson, 31, embodies the bittersweet emotions, and the tensions, experienced by thousands of mothers and children across the state.
Families Face Strain From Incarceration
When mothers are incarcerated, advocates say, their children serve time with them. Many of the children experience emotional, behavioral and academic problems, experts say. And up to half of boys with a parent in jail or prison are in turn incarcerated at some point in their lives.
Sister Suzanne Steffen, of the Detention Ministry with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, said the situation becomes much more difficult when mothers don't see their children for the duration of their incarceration.
Seventy-five percent of California's 9,400 female inmates are mothers, according to state officials. Half of those women do not see their children until they are released.
Two years ago, Steffen and several prisoners' rights advocates, who call themselves Justice Partners, began chartering coach buses to the Central California Women's Facility and Valley State Prison for Women in the San Joaquin Valley, to give children and their caregivers throughout the state an opportunity to visit mothers on Mother's Day.
"This is an exciting event for the inmates," said Greg Schoonard, a women's facility spokesman. "It has tremendous benefits for the inmates to see their children. To be a successful parolee, we recognize the importance of these women maintaining their family ties."
Angelique has dealt with her mother's incarceration better than many children, says Keese. "She handles it very well and makes the best of every situation."
Still, the memories sting.
When Angelique was 2, she was already in foster care but would visit her mother on weekends. She would wake up some nights and find herself alone in an apartment. She'd run to the neighbor's house and tell them her mother had left her alone.
A few times, she said, her mother took her to strangers' houses, and disappeared. "I wouldn't even know who those people are," said Angelique, who first participated in Justice Partner's bus trip two years ago. "She'd just leave me."
The memories are all vague. "It's like I was dreaming when I think about those things," Angelique said.
Angelique, who lives in Torrance with her guardian, Bonnie Cowan, has seen her mother only sporadically since she fell out of the bedroom window in 1993, though they occasionally talk by telephone. Recently, Angelique said Robinson asked her to ship her birthday money to the prison so she could buy cigarettes. Angelique didn't send the money.
Two days before Mother's Day, 136 children from 67 families took the trip to Chowchilla. The children arrived at the Central California Women's Facility shortly after 11 a.m. They took their shoes off to pass through metal detectors, then were led through barbed wire fences, and past a guard tower.
Renewing Relationships Under Guard
Some children, like 12-year-old Johnathon Stallings of Santa Monica, barely know their mothers. It was the first time Johnathon had visited his mother in seven years.
Others, like Shalonna Meadows, 13, of Los Angeles, still have difficulty understanding why their mothers are in prison. Shalonna hadn't seen her mother in eight years.
Then there was Angelique, wearing a red sweater and black sundress. She was nervous that morning, because she knew her mother would ask her to sing. Angelique has a lovely voice and loves to sing. But not this day.
"Everyone is going to look at me," she said. "I don't want to sing."
"Her mother really wanted her to sing a song," Cowan said. "Isn't that what she said, Annie?"
"But I don't want to. Everybody is going to be doing their own thing, then they're going to stop and stare at me. It's embarrassing, Nana."
The inmate mothers began trickling into the 5,200-square-foot visitor area at 1:30 p.m. Some are serving time for drug offenses and burglary, others for murder.