Young Adults Learn to Live with Incarcerated Parents

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COLUMBIA - According to prison experts, 2.8 million children have a parent in prison. Regi BarrHarris, now a 21-year-old music student at Webster University, grew up with his step-father behind bars.

"It's a hard feeling to describe having an incarcerated father just because everybody else has their dad that is at home and they have a very distinct idea of what a father is and what a father does and what roles are being filled."

BarrHarris's birth father was not present during his childhood either.

"It's weird because I had two fathers but I still feel like I was raised by a single mother because they weren't at home."

BarrHarris's mother, Paula Skillicorn met Dennis Skillicorn's--BarrHarris' eventual step-father--while covering his murder case.

"They met while he was in prison and I was pretty young then so I know it was hard for her to explain it to me, but they feel in love, got married and then we moved closer to where Dennis was staying," said BarrHarris.

As a kid, BarrHarris said those visits were never satisfying.

"You go to this prison, you sit there, you keep your hands above the table, follow all their rules and just kinda sit and talk and when you are seven or eight you don't want to just sit in a room for five hours and just not move," said BarrHarris.

But a program started that changed the interaction between BarrHarris and his step-father.

"That's what the 4-H LIFE program did, it made it a little more normal, well as normal as it could be," said BarrHarris. "We could get up, play cards and actually do stuff."

The LIFE program was developed jointly between incarcerated fathers and local 4-H staff to address the needs of children of incarcerated parents. These meetings provide children and their incarcerated fathers with a comfortable visitation atmosphere that allows positive physical and verbal interaction. BarrHarris and his step-father are the first pair to model this program. But as BarrHarris got older, he knew that the visits to see his step father would eventually stop.

"Everybody else was going out and enjoying everything and you're just trying to take your mind off of the fact that at any moment they can just say hey, we're going to kill your family member. You know that guy that's been taking care of you for a long time, he's just going to be gone and you don't really know when thats going to happen," said BarrHarris.

While BarrHarris was in high shchool, he learned some troubling news.

"I was seventeen when they gave him his first execution date," said BarrHarris. "And it ended up happening two days before I graduated from high school."

Despite the pain BarrHarris dealt with, he said his relationship with his step-father is something he treasures.

"He was a good mediator between me and my mom. Her and I are so alike so we could never get anything done but he would always try to fix that. I would say that I didn't get a lot of the things that a lot of people get from their fathers but the things that he gave me were good things," said BarrHarris.

And BarrHarris said his relationship with his mother has always been strong.

"I feel like I get a very good upbringing from my mom in the first wasnt like a stereotypical family of an incarcerated mother always stressed education," said BarHarris.

BarrHarris said his hard times helped him develop a love for music.

"At the time, I didn't really realize why my music was dark but it was mostly because that is how I was feeling at the time. But it really has helped me get through a lot," said BarrHarris.

Today, Barharris is working as a musician in St. Louis and will graduate with a music degree from Webster University in May.

Tamika Valentine, is now a mother and a wife, but with a past that most people can't imagine.

"When I was growing up, I would have loved for someone to just take a little bit of time you know to get to know me outside of school, just to hang out with me and be concerned about the things that concerned me," said Valentine.

Her mother was an alcoholic and Valentine never knew if she had a father, so she was raised by her maternal grandmother.

"I would ask my mom all the time about him and she would ignore me. She never brought his name up," said Valentine.

The day Valentine graduated from high school, a man walked up to her and said something that changed her life forever.

"'I'm your brother,' he said. He asked me all these questions and said my name and started quoting all these things about me and I was so freaked out. But something about it felt right," said Valentine.

Valentine also found out that one of her fellow classmates were closer to her than she thought.
"He told me that I had siblings and while he was listing the names off I recognized one of them," said Valentine. "I found out that I went to high school with one of my brothers all four years, and we graduated together."

That day, the surprises did not stop.

"Someone told me during high school that my father was alive and that he had been incarcerated, I don't really remember who and when that happened but the day I graduated high school was the first day I heard his voice ever," said Valentine.

Valentine's relationship with her father grew from that day into a bond that she always dreamed of.

"There were things that I did that my mother never did, so when I met him and realized he loved to danced and he was a thinker like me. I felt like I really belonged. It was like he was my twin," said Valentine.

Valentine said that regardless of the pain that was caused by the absence of her father, she knew she had to forgive him.

"Before I met him, I forgave him so when we met I said 'Okay, let's do this.' Sometimes I know he still feels bad like he owes me, but I had to let that go for me," said Valentine.

Valentine said she learned the importance of forgiveness from faith.

"When I was younger my aunt had a bible that was fully color coded so I did the same thing. I got a bible and started highlighting it. Before I knew it I was learning the verses, and that saved my life," said Valentine.

Valentine said she never believed her life would turn out the way it did. She is so grateful for her husband and two children.