Sins of the father: Children bear the burden of parents' crimes

Sins of the father: Children bear the burden of parents' crimes

April 27th, 2014 by Beth Burger in Local Regional News

When a father is sent to jail, his family ends up paying in its own way for his crime.

Jermetrice Watson, like many mothers, wants what's best for her 11-year-old son: a safe home, success in school, good friends. Happiness.

As a single mom, she knows that providing for her son rests on her shoulders alone.

"I try to do it on my own the best way I can," Watson said.

She met her son's father, Joe Jenkins, through a friend. She initially didn't want to talk to him. He was persistent, though. They started dating.

Months into their relationship, he went with her to buy a pregnancy test at Walmart, and told her that federal agents were looking for him. She didn't know what the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was.

By the time Watson gave birth to her son months later in 2002, Jenkins, 29, already was gone to federal prison.

Their son was 8 years old when Jenkins got out. For the next few years, Jenkins tried to reach out to his son and to get work. It didn't last.

Now Jenkins is back in jail, facing 20 years to life on cocaine charges stemming from a Drug Enforcement Administration investigation that netted 32 men in November. He is in the Bradley County Jail awaiting a pre-trial conference May 12, a federal docket shows.

While Jenkins has spent years paying for his crimes and faces more time in the newest case, his son is also paying a price. It may be a lifelong burden, affecting everything from his education and relationships to his earning power and longevity.

This is the social cost to crime and punishment. Few people see it other than those involved. They live it.

"I let Joe talk to him about [the arrest,]" Watson said.

Jenkins hasn't said much.

"I haven't told him exactly what happened," he said. "I told him I won't know more about the situation until I go to court."

Among the men indicted as a result of the DEA sweep, at least 39 children are now living without their fathers present.

Collectively, the men are expected to pay $60,576 in child support each year. The month they were picked up, as a group they were already late in paying $20,609. The amount grows each month they are incarcerated.

And while there is a direct financial cost to single parents raising children for years on their own, the cost of absent fathers reaches well beyond the wallet.

Timothy Dempsey, chief executive officer of Chattanooga Endeavors, a nonprofit that helps former felons find work, said the effects on a fatherless family can be lifelong.

"These kids are just like anybody else going through the same life circumstances, but having to deal with it without any major support system in place to help process it. So it's tough on them," Dempsey said.

Watson shows her son what it means to hold down a job. She works long hours at a local manufacturing plant.

But who will teach Joe's son how to treat women? How to ask a girl out? How to shave in a few years? How to respond if someone picks a fight or if a police officer stops him? Who will show him what it means to be a man?

As Joe's son approaches his pivotal adolescent years and prepares to enter middle school next year, there are lots of unknowns.

•••

Jenkins says his father wasn't around for him or his siblings. He didn't meet his own father until he was 27, and then only because Jenkins sought him out.

He said that's not the way he wanted it for his son.

"That's the thing that bothers me the most. ... I promised myself I wouldn't be like my dad," he said in an interview at the jail. "They wouldn't have to be out there without me and here I am."

Court records show that Jenkins was convicted of selling cocaine in Hamilton County in 1995, when he was 22. Two years later a charge for possession of cocaine for resale was dismissed.

In 2003, he was locked up on federal drug charges and sentenced to 10 years.

Jenkins appealed to Judge Curtis Collier in November 2006 for a shortened sentence.

"I come to you as most definitely a changed man and also a man that has used my time wisely and appreciates the time I have spent in prison," he wrote from the McCreary Penitentiary, 200 miles away in Pine Knot, Ky. "It's given me time to learn the true meaning of a man and a father, and to become both."

He said in the letter that he found God. He struck up a relationship with a pastor while he in prison. He was in love with a woman he said he had married. He wanted to start a new life.

"My pastor is the only real father figure that I've had, and with his guidance and the time I've spent in prison, I've grown to be very much a better man," he wrote in another letter to the judge.

After federal reforms were passed to reduce sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine convictions, Jenkins obtained an attorney and petitioned for relief.

A few years shy of serving his full sentence, in December 2010, he was released and placed on supervised release until 2018.

Outwardly, he seemed to make strides to get on track.

Yet Jenkins struggled, making $7 to $8 per hour. He described looking for a good-paying job as "frustrating."

He enrolled in evangelism classes, and he began to build relationships with his children -- two adult children and three juveniles, all of whom have different mothers.

He finally was able to find a job paying $14 an hour at a local tire company, just a few months before he was arrested by federal authorities.

But he violated probation by March 2013, court records show. Authorities found Jenkins' cellphone number in another federal drug offender's phone contacts. When questioned by a probation officer, Jenkins said he knew the man and had contact with him. Jenkins also claimed to not have a cellphone. He was ordered to serve 15 weekends in jail.

He said he is not guilty of the new federal charges pending in court.

"That's not who I am," he said.

•••

For the nearly three years Jenkins was out of prison, he worked to establish a relationship with his and Watson's son. He and Watson went to Juvenile Court to set up visitation and child support. Jenkins was ordered to pay $111 in child support.

Watson said it took seven months before Jenkins and son interacted with ease.

Her son "would go with him. He would never turn him down," Watson said, but Jenkins would tell her the boy "wasn't really responsive to him."

Jenkins would ask, "Do he not talk?" Watson recalled.

Dempsey said parents -- and their children -- often have a tough and confusing time when men return and assume a father role.

"The parents try to renegotiate these new relationships, and it's not an easy thing to do," Dempsey said. "So a father might want to automatically step in and try to be a father where he hadn't been for the past five, 10, 15 years. They've got to figure out this new landscape."

Jenkins visited his son's elementary school to see what he could do to support him.

"I was delighted. Now I have a male I can refer to," the principal at Hardy Elementary School, Anetta Ferguson, remembered. "We talked about maybe we can begin by making sure he's well groomed."

The principal encouraged Jenkins to take other steps to be a part of his son's life.

"We moved from that to make sure he does his homework. Make sure he has the correct uniform. Make sure he has a belt to wear. Make sure his pants are not sagging."

Jenkins was one of the only fathers at the school to show up and ask how to be involved.

"When I first met him, he said, 'I was incarcerated. That's why I didn't see him.' Very few people would be that open about that," Ferguson said. "Others don't want to say anything at all, and you don't know where to start. You don't know if they were home and negligent and didn't care."

Before Jenkins was arrested in November, his son's behavior had improved in school. There were fewer disruptions. That began to change after Jenkins' arrest.

"I just watched the son and saw that he looked sad," the principal said. "I can look at him and say he's not himself today. He puts his head down."

The son is a tall, lanky boy who seems to carry the thought of his father with him. A sadness lingers. He comes across as a little pensive, and reserved at first. With a little encouragement, the corners of his mouth turn upward into a smile.

The principal makes efforts to give him a little extra attention.

"'Do your best. You can be anybody you want to be. Don't misbehave,' she reminds him. "He's really sharp. I know the potential is there." she said.

Still, the young man acts out.

"He does things he shouldn't do," Watson said, like talk in class or cause disruptions.

She'll ask what's going on.

"He blames it on somebody else."

She tells him: "'You have to start taking responsibility for your actions. I understand that happens sometimes, but not all the time.'"

Jenkins said he tries to still be a father to his son, only by phone now.

"I tell him I can't baby him. I have to trust him to do what he says he's going to do," Jenkins said.

•••

Watson and her son hear from Jenkins about three times a week in the form of phone calls.

"[Their son] enjoys the conversation," Watson said.

But it's also an opportunity for Jenkins to encourage the young man to stay on the right path. If he acts out, Jenkins tells him he needs to do better.

But Jenkins is careful. He knows he's not there.

"I don't want to chastise him. I want him to want to hear from me," Jenkins said.

Watson's son constantly asks his mother when his father will be released from jail.

A teammate on his football team teased him about his father getting a long sentence.

Watson and her son don't think about Jenkins getting a life sentence -- even 20 years is hard to grasp. Even with that shorter sentence, if convicted, his son would be in his early 30s when his father is released.

"Your daddy [is] not going to be gone forever. Your daddy [is] going to be back," Watson reassures him.

She forges ahead with her plans to lay a solid foundation for her son. It's a challenge. Jenkins' son lives in the same Churchville neighborhood where he grew up. The rent is cheap in the clean, small brick duplex that is sparse with furnishings and appliances.

Someone broke in and stole the electronics from their home a few months ago while the young boy was asleep.

The neighborhood is 95 percent black. Census records show that the median family income is $28,650. About 20 percent of residents are unemployed. There are 320 family households with children under the age of 18. Of those, 18 percent live in married couple households, and 82 percent live in single-parent households.

Watson plans to move to Brainerd. She wants her son to go to a different middle school than the one he is zoned for.

"I try to keep him occupied so he won't go down the wrong path," she said.

She plans to move out of the neighborhood and from the crime that seems to plague the streets.

"I want him away from everybody," she said.

The principal seems to share her concern.

"Academically, I think he will continue to succeed, but he's going to need that encouragement to stay the course," she said. "I don't want [him] to fall into bad company, which is very easy. Very easy. It takes absolutely no effort."

And Watson has a thought that gnaws at her. She tries to banish it as soon as it comes to mind. What if her son ends up like his father?

"I think about it all the time," she said.