Photos by Ben Easter
Written by Christine Riccelli
With a forthright manner that belies his age, 8-year-old Dayton Daughenbaugh of Des Moines will tell you, in candid detail, about the night his father was arrested: “I was in the front room. I went upstairs and saw mom and dad on the roof. He stabbed my mom on the leg. He tried to kill her. There was blood all over the roof.”
Kauai Cua of West Des Moines grows pensive when asked about her father. The 8-year-old girl was too young to remember that day in California when her father was arrested for beating two people to death. “I never see him,” she says in a near whisper. “Never.”
Dayton and Kauai, along with 13 other children, recently gathered at Ikonix Studio in Des Moines to have their photographs taken and share the struggles they face as children of imprisoned parents. Their poignant stories revealed their vulnerabilities and sorrows, but, in a greater measure, their bravery and tenacious resilience. Their dreams also emerged. With 1,400 pictures on her iTouch, Quinlynn DeSomber, 12, has been thinking of becoming a photographer. Nine-year-old Destiny Henderson is determined to be the next Beyoncé. “I dream about it every night,” she told us.
Kids are so hopeful when they realize there are other children who understand their feelings of abandonment and shame.”
The photo shoot took place because of the efforts of Jolene Pfaff (pronounced Paff) and Joy DeSomber, two West Des Moines women who are co-authors of a new book, “What Did I Do? Stories From the Hearts of Children Whose Parents Are Incarcerated.” Nineteen Iowa children, all but two from Greater Des Moines, contributed to the book, which is being distributed free through Voices to be Heard, a local support organization for families with imprisoned loved ones.
Writing about their experiences helps the children understand and move beyond their situation, Pfaff and DeSomber say. It also provides a source of support and encouragement for other kids facing similar challenges. “We hope that children and families will read the stories in the book and know they’re not alone,” Pfaff says. “Kids are so hopeful when they realize there are other children who understand their feelings of abandonment and shame.”
DeSomber adds that the book is intended as a way to show children that “others are with them on this journey.”
She knows all about that journey; it’s one her three children—Kauai Cua and Quinlynn and Neal DeSomber—have been forced to travel. Her former husband, whom she describes as a “charming sociopath,” led a double life for years. As a seemingly devoted husband and father, he took the kids on camping trips and sailing excursions; taught them how to read and ride a bike; gave them gifts and cooked them dinners. But he also stole money, had affairs and stored child pornography on his computer. Then came the most shocking crime of all: beating to death an elderly couple who were his employers and friends. “The lives we thought we knew were gone,” DeSomber recalls.
With her former husband behind bars in California, DeSomber and her children moved to Des Moines in 2006 to be with family. She decided to be open and honest with her kids about their father’s crimes, believing that hiding behind secrets would only foster isolation and bitterness. “I told them that they’d be on this journey with me, so they’d be better off digesting it as they went along rather than waiting and building resentment over the years,” she says. To help them work through their feelings, she encouraged them to write about their experiences.
DeSomber and Pfaff met in 2007 at an Iowa Scriptwriters Alliance meeting. Pfaff, a documentary filmmaker, had recently moved back to Iowa from Minnesota following the death of her husband. Intrigued and moved by DeSomber’s experience, Pfaff suggested the two work together on a documentary based on DeSomber’s children’s writings.
The documentary soon morphed into the idea for the book. DeSomber says that although prison support groups offer valuable programs and services, there are no books geared toward kids that take a peer-to-peer approach to addressing the particular hardships they face.
Pfaff’s company, Joventure Productions LLC, funded the book’s development, and Voices to be Heard paid the printing costs for the preliminary run of books being used for its membership. However, the two women have formed a nonprofit organization, Empowering Children of Incarcerated Parents, that will publish similar books throughout the country in partnership with local chapters of support groups such as Voices to be Heard and Angel Tree. Each book will feature the writings of children from that area.
“We’re starting grass roots,” DeSomber says. “It takes time.”
Still, their efforts already are attracting national attention. DeSomber recently spoke at the annual Prisoner’s Family Conference, held this year in New Mexico. “We’re meeting amazing people and finding connections,” she says. “We’re finding there’s a real need” for this type of book.
Indeed, about one in every 28 children—or a total of 2.7 million kids—have an imprisoned parent, up from one in every 125 just 25 years ago, according to a study by The Pew Charitable Trusts. What’s more, about 75 percent of all women behind bars are mothers, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The average age of children with an incarcerated parent is 8.
To Pfaff and DeSomber, such statistics show the importance of making others aware of this largely hidden population of children. “We want to open the eyes of the general public,” Pfaff says, “and show them what’s happening and who these children are.”
Note: The children wrote the quotes that accompany the photographs in this article for the book, “What Did I Do? Stories From the Hearts of Children Whose Parents Are Incarcerated.”
Dayton Daughenbaugh, 8
“Dad stabbed my mom on the leg—chased her on the roof and tried to kill her. Left blood on the roof. Tons of cops came pointing lazer guns at him. There was blood on the bed and blankets. He is not coming home.”
Destiny Henderson, 9
“I kind of don’t know (my dad) a whole lot. I don’t know where he is from, when his birthday is or where he was born. I wish I knew these things.”
Victoria Edwards, 14
“My mom has been in prison off and on my whole life. I suffered from severe depression. I don’t want anything to do with her. (She) has officially lost my trust.”
Tayrisha Kipper, 9
“One time when my dad was in jail and we was going to see him, I thought I was going to see him face to face but I had to talk to him in the glass. I was mad and I hid under the table for the whole time we were there.”
Deseraye Henderson, 9
“I wish the jail had more popcorn. I wish they didn’t have lockdowns. I wish they had new markers and crayons at the jail, and I wish we could bring puppies.”
Kauai Cua, 8
“I feel sad and happy about my dad. I feel happy because he can’t hurt me. I feel sad because I love him.”
Tydarria Griffin, 11
“I don’t tell my friends about my dad. I tell them he is nowhere. He writes to me but I forgot what he writes.”
Neal DeSomber, 14
“On Father’s Day, when he (his stepfather) was arrested, we hung all these papers that said ‘Happy Father’s Day’ and got all excited. but he never came through the door.”