After having their newborn son Joseph taken away almost a year ago, a Racine couple has fought hard to get their 11-month-old boy living in their home full-time.

The process has been emotional. But officials with Racine County Human Services had genuine concerns.

Donald, a mother of 10 children, is a felon convicted of child neglect in 2007 after her 10-month old son died because he starved to death. Mother and son had cocaine in their system because she was breastfeeding him at the time. Released from prison two years ago after she earned an early release, Joseph is Donald’s 10th child.

On May 1, 2016, the county took Joseph five hours after he was born. For months Donald asked her probation officer about what would happen so that she could prepare her and Joseph’s father Joe Sr. But they told her that her case was closed and that shouldn’t be a problem. But it was a problem.

The day Donald was released from the hospital, her niece got custody of Joseph. Donald and Joe Sr. spent the day in court.

“His eyes weren’t even open yet,” Joe Sr. recalls. “He was four, five hours old and they started talking about how he needed to go live with someone else. I was really upset.”

Fighting For Joseph

But Joe Sr. and Donald continued to follow the rules. He knew about Donald’s past. But saw her resolve and committed himself to her.

Over the course of the next 11 months, Joe Sr. took a DNA paternity test and submitted to drug tests. Court officials wanted Donald and Joe Sr. to separate, but the two loved one another and they wanted to parent Joseph together.

“It was about bringing our child home, not bringing him to a divided home,” she said. “Joe was like… ‘No, I plan on marrying her, I love her. This is our child together.’ And we fought together. It was hard. Really hard.”

Joe Sr. had no other children but Joseph. Every day he wanted nothing more than to be a father to Joseph. Even though the couple visited him every week, leaving his son took a toll on him.

“They (the county) would ask him about parenting and he would tell them, ‘I don’t know, you never gave me the chance to be a father to my son,'” Donald said.

Visiting Joseph kept them motivated. His smile warmed their hearts. His laugh made them laugh.  And Joseph’s presence — even though limited — kept them going.

“The biggest up was hiding behind the door and calling out his name… he’d be looking for us,” she said. “And when he would find us, he giggled big.”

A year ago Joe started working for Andis Corporation. Donald just landed a paid internship with 9to5 Wisconsin. She also works with ExPO, a group of ex prisoner’s organizing around social justice issues like mass incarceration and Ban the Box. Meanwhile, the couple agreed to a series of stipulations outlined in a consent decree, which required them to follow all the court’s orders.

The decree required that Donald stay in contact with the Department of Human Services, stay clean and sober, keep in contact with her probation officer, commit to regular visits to see Joseph, and agree to counseling. But after six months of following court orders, the lawyers stepped out of the process, and told them they were doing all the right things.

“We did what they asked and crossed that bridge, but then they sprung something new that wasn’t in the agreement,” he said. “But I knew if that’s what I gotta do to get him back… I’ll do it.”

Working On The Good Life

In total, Donald completed 10 different certificates, including two parenting classes, and classes on reintegration, transitional preparation, the earned release program, and domestic violence classes.

Much of the groundwork happened in prison.

And one source of inspiration for Donald came from Denise Jones, author of the book Who Said It Couldn’t Be Done. She visited the Robert E. Ellsworth Correctional Center in Union Grove. What resonated the most for Donald was how Jones’ family was torn apart by heroin, but they got back together.

“That gave me hope… and I started saying it. I want my family back and that’s what changed me,” she said.

Donald worked on her relationship with Christ, herself and her decision making. She learned that other people’s opinion of her doesn’t matter. Her focus is entirely on building her life with Joe Sr., and her children. But with that attitude, Donald finds that people are more open to talking to her about her work.

“I don’t let it bother me. I pray,” she said.

Joe Sr.’s Influence On Kim

Joe Sr. moved here from Gary Indiana in 2013. His city was a wreck. There were no jobs. The city was small and the people around him were committing a lot of crimes. After losing a lot of friends to gun violence and prison, Joe Sr. headed to Racine to visit family and he stayed.

“I couldn’t just sit around and let that be all I knew,” he said. “I’m from a rough neighborhood. And if you know better and can do better… go for it.”

He doesn’t let Donald’s past or what anyone else thinks about get in his way. He knows that people will say what they want to and feel the way they want about you.

“There’s nothing that you can do about it and you’ll just spend time out of your day to reply to their ignorance… and it’ll bring your own day down,” he said. “So you just keep on rollin’.”

Donald agrees.

“Don’t spend $100 on a two cent problem,” she said. “People can think what they want to think. They are entitled to their opinion. It’s up to me to show them that they are wrong and that’s exactly what I do every day.”

More Parenting Ahead

Joe Sr. and Donald say having Joseph home has brought them joy.

“We come together for a common goal and I see us on a path to being very prosperous… I don’t know how or when, but it’s been like that ever since we’ve been together,” McLaurin said. “There are days when we have a need for something, but it just seems to happen.”

Still, their main focus is on being there for the rest of her children and getting custody of at least three more of them.

“Already got my papers ready for the next child,” she said. “I plan on getting them back one at a time as I grow in my company, then I’ll be able to get a bigger place.”

Donald wants to go back to school for business management to start her own company that will focus on helping people once they get out of the prison system. She already has the name picked out: Diligence, she said.

Joe Sr. is holding down his job at Andis Company and wants to learn more about CNC machining. Being a full-time dad suits Joe Sr. And the whole experience has opened his eyes, he said.

“There’s something bigger than just me,” he said. “I’ve really never had to be responsible for anyone other than just me. It’s new, but I like it.”

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Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for Patch.com, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.