West Des Moines Women Reach Out to Kids With Incarcerated Parents
How do you still love someone who, by most accounts, is a monster? Joy DeSomber’s children found that when they answered the question on paper, they could help kids they didn’t know wrestle with the same trauma.
Eight-year-old Kauai Cua doesn’t remember much about her father. She was only 2 when her family’s life was turned upside down. What she knows for sure is that “he is a monster.” If she could, Kauai would ask Joseph Cua this:
How could you do this to our family? What did I do to deserve this?
It’s a little more complicated for her older siblings, Quinlynn, 12, and Neal, 14.
They vividly remember their stepfather and the idyllic life they lived in Burlingame, CA, located on the San Francisco Peninsula and known for its Victorian architecture, its affluence and high-quality residential life.
Now living in West Des Moines with family as they put their lives back together, they have had to put memories of their loving, engaged stepfather on the shelf along with other childhood fantasies, to separate the fiction from the reality – that of a “charming pyschopath,” Joy DeSomber, their mother, said.
They were 7 and 9 when Joseph Cua savagely beat his employers of 25 years to death, a crime for which he was sentenced to life in a maximum-security prison in California. Prosecutors in San Mateo County argued he killed the couple, Fernand and Suzanne Wagner, on Suzanne’s birthday because he feared they were about to discover he had been embezzling from them for years.
To help her children and other children of incarcerated parents sort out their feelings of betrayal, isolation and self doubt surrounding what in the world they did for their lives to be filled with so much turmoil, she teamed with another West Des Moines woman, Jolene Pfaff (pronounced Paff), to write a book, “What Did I Do? Stories From the Hearts of Children Whose Parents are Incarcerated."
They also formed a nonprofit organization, Empowering Children of Incarcerated Parents, which is joining with the Child and Family Policy Center to present a one-day conference, Incarceration’s Forgotten Victims Conference – Children of Prisoners, on Friday. DeSomber is one of the featured speakers at the event at crime victims from across Iowa.
Each Day Revealed Some New Horror
DeSomber said Cua was like “the father of the year” to everyone who knew him. She had her own issues with him and was looking for a way out of their marriage, but he spent time with the kids, taking them to Disneyland, equipping their back yard in California with enough playground equipment to fill a small park, and teaching them to read and play games.
“We were living the life,” DeSomber said. “We had the sailboats, the vacations, the time shares.”
Looking back at her naïveté, she recognized that until her own family was shattered by violence, she hadn’t given much thought to how having a parent or step-parent in prison might affect children, both as they came to grips with what had happened to their own families, but also faced ostracization from the outside.
“Now I know from being on the other side that this is how people are treated,” she said. “I was just as guilty as the people whose minds I am trying to change now.”
Initially, “the shock protects you,” DeSomber said. “Your mind goes to a different place, so you can survive.”
Eventually, though, reality slapped her in the face.
She had to figure out how not only to go on with her life – a difficult thing because while he was embezzling from his employers, Joseph Cua was also taking money from the household accounts, leaving his family flat broke.
As the pieces began to fall into place and the nightmare grew, DeSomber shared details with her older children as she learned them. He had affairs. Police found child pornography on his computer. Each day revealed some new horror.
“For the first six months, it was one hit after another,” she said. “I told them about things as I discovered them so they could understand my state of mind.”
The last thing she wanted was for the kids to think they’d somehow been responsible, or for them to be shunned by friends. She talked them through it, let them know they could still love their stepfather as they began to absorb the unfathomable.
Support Groups Non-Existent
Though she had shared details as she learned them with her older children to protect them from the awfulness of discovering them on their own and facing a renewed sense of betrayal, DeSomber still wanted to connect them with other kids who had gone through what they had gone through and could talk to them, kid-to-kid.
Resettled in Iowa with her parents, she looked for a support group. The search turned up nothing.
So she did the next best thing. She wrote down the nightmare and encouraged her children to do the same. She read excerpts from the family’s story at a meeting of the Iowa Scriptwriters Alliance in 2009.
That’s when DeSomber met Pfaff, a filmmaker living in West Des Moines.
Pfaff was both mesmerized and flabbergasted.
“Oh my God, she is talking about her life,” Pfaff said she thought at the time. “It is so powerful. I can’t believe it. I need to know this woman.”
Could These Kids Be The Ones Shooting Up Schools?
Pfaff initially wanted to do a documentary on DeSomber’s family. Eventually she came to realize it was better suited to a less sophisticated audience: Kids living some of the same nightmares as DeSomber’s children and dealing with some of the same mixed up emotions.
She’d done enough research to understand what too often happens to children of incarcerated parents – and there are about 1.7 million of them in the United States today, according to statistics from The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group developed around sentencing reform.
Pfaff said that and other studies show these children, about half of them younger than 10, often feel shame, grief and anger; are socially stigmatized; perform poorly in school; have an impaired ability to cope with stress or trauma; and are at risk for substance abuse and addiction.
Another study, conducted by the Jane Addams Center for Social Policy and Research at the University of Illinois, found that one in three children of incarcerated parents displayed their trauma through aggression, disruptive behavior and externally in other ways.
“Every time I hear all these God-awful situations, I think about the families of the perpetrators and what hell their lives must be, yet I saw Joy surviving,” Pfaff said. “I am always thinking, it could be me. These could be the kids shooting up schools. Who knows what kind of vitriol there is toward their families?”
Pfaff hopes their collaboration has a message for society that “we need to get back to compassion" and that the effort coming out of Iowa will be national in scope.
“If we are not reaching out to these millions of kids,” DeSomber started, then faltered. “if we are not reaching out to them, what are we doing to them?"
Also with this story:
- Neal and Quinlynn DeSomber wrote essays as they struggled to understand what their father had done.
- Excerpts From the Book: Voices from Innocent and Sometimes Unseen Victims of Crime
- Incarceration’s Forgotten Victims Conference – Children of Prisoners
- Texas Mom Comes to Iowa to Tell Why She Still Loves Son Who Killed Her Daughter