By Bonnie Hartley
In 2017 my husband, of 15 years at the time, was arrested, and our family’s life will never be the same again.
I am a Special Needs teacher for elementary school, one afternoon, while preparing for dismissal my phone rang, the caller ID said it was my husband. I answered saying “Hey, it’s almost dismissal I can’t talk right now, is everything ok?” It absolutely was not. On the other side of that phone call was a woman’s voice informing me that she was with Homeland Security and that they were executing a search warrant on our home, she said I needed to come home immediately. Frantic, I called my kid’s afternoon babysitter asking if she could pick them up, my husband was off early that day and was supposed to. I told her I had no clue what was going on and asked if she could please take the kids to her house. The 25-minute drive home was one of the longest drives of my life. When I pulled up there was about 10 unmarked vehicles surrounding our property and I could see my husband sitting on the side of the house with several agents around him. Our home was searched and trashed, and I was asked to sit in one of the vehicles where I was interviewed for hours. Eventually I was given permission to speak with my husband, but only after he was cuffed and placed in the back of one of the vehicles. I remember that he had sunglasses on, but I could still see the tears in his eyes. I told him I loved him and that we would figure this all out. He said he was so sorry and that he loved me too. I can still feel the shock and emotions of that day, even three years later.
Luckily, I had a good friend standing there with me as they all drove off, if it wasn’t for her, I would’ve likely passed out on the front lawn. She helped me get inside, we had to clean up some so we could walk around, plus we had to search for our animals. Even though I politely requested, more than once, for the agents to leave my front door closed because I had two kittens, they wouldn’t. All I could think about for that moment was finding them, pretty sure that is what kept me from violently throwing up. Once we found them, hiding under a bed, my next thought was my children. (Not sure why I didn’t think of them first, my mind was going a million miles a minute, so focusing on the cats helped me come back to reality in a way) How was I going to tell them? What was I going to tell them? And I knew nothing would ever be the same again. Our beautiful life had come crashing down, and I was powerless to stop it.
I won’t lie and say that from that moment on I did everything right, I know for a fact that I did not, but there is no playbook for this situation. There was no one that came by to say to me, “We are sorry that this has happened to you and your children and we are here to help get you through it.” (Why isn’t there someone who does that for the families left behind in this situation? There really should be.) Next came figuring out bail, then interviews with the Department of Social Services, lawyers, the list goes on. One of the hardest things I had to do, in those first few days, was informing the kid’s school. As a teacher, I knew it was vital that they hear about it from me. It was a small town, the arrest happened right at dismissal and our home was on the road that everyone drove by to get to and from the school. Plus, of course it was in the papers. I wanted them to know my side, I needed them to help protect my babies and I wanted my kids to know they had someone else there for them. After that I focused on keeping their lives’ as normal as possible. Even though I was slowly dying inside, I mustered up the strength to do all I could to keep them safe mentally and physically.
I know now that I did my very best, I haven’t always thought that way. But I also learned a lot of valuable and hard lessons during it all. Sure, there are things I wish I had done differently, but that’s all a part of my learning and my growth as a person and a mom. Now I want to try to share my knowledge and experience with other parents and caregivers who are left behind due to incarceration. I want them to know they are not alone, there are others dealing with this too, and even though you feel like you have been forgotten you have not been. As I said, there is no playbook for us, yet, but if we come together, we could write one. In a country that has such a high incarceration rate as ours there is absolutely a need for it, and we can use our experiences to help ensure no one has to feel the way I felt that day and the days weeks months years later again. We do not have to let this destroy our life, there is light at the end of the tunnel, and if you feel like you can’t make it just remember you are not alone, there are others like you and your children deserve your very best. None of this is your fault, or theirs, and you have to find the strength to push yourself and your family through it.