While she and her children slept, Arlene Adams was attacked by their abusive father. Defending herself, she killed him. She served her time, and is now rebuilding her life.
Photographs by Clara Vannucci
Text by Arlene Adams
Ms. Adams is an advocate for children whose parents have been incarcerated. Ms. Vannucci is a documentary photographer.
September 6th, 2019
In the early hours of Sept. 15, 2010, my children and I were sound asleep when my partner arrived at our home in Brooklyn drunk after a night out, and flew into a violent rage.
For years I had endured verbal abuse, beatings, sexual assault. That night as he punched me in the head over and over, something inside me snapped. I stabbed him with a knife I had grabbed for protection in the scuffle. He died on the way to the hospital.
In a matter of seconds, our lives changed forever. I was separated from my two daughters, Armani and Jameeyah, who were only 4 and 2 years old. I was 22 and facing a potential life sentence for murder. I thought my life was over. I felt devastated and was suicidal.
During the 18 months I spent awaiting trial on Rikers Island, Armani and Jameeyah lived with my mother. Social service workers would bring my daughters to visit me in jail. Every visit was sad; we’d cry at the end and my daughters would ask me when I was coming home. I also worried about how the violence they had witnessed would affect them.
One day at the urging of a fellow inmate, I began attending a Bible study. Bit by bit I began to feel more hopeful. I worked on improving myself. I earned a high school equivalency diploma and completed training programs in subjects like anger management and food safety handling to improve my chances for rebuilding my life once I was released — if I was released. I was determined that my daughters and I would have a new, better life together.
Because of the domestic abuse I had endured, I was offered a deal: On March 23, 2012, I pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter and released. I had five years of probation supervision ahead of me.
After my release, I wanted to improve not only my life and the lives of my children, but also help others who had been affected by incarceration and domestic violence. Life after prison, however, was full of obstacles.
I had to take parenting classes, find an apartment and get a job in order to regain custody of my daughters. I interviewed for every job imaginable, but when potential employers learned of my record, I’d be denied the position. Facing unemployment and homelessness, I felt discouraged and hopeless.
I began working with a therapist on the tremendous shame and guilt I felt for leaving my daughters at such critical time in their lives. During the therapy I began to understand and recover from the post-traumatic stress I realized that I was suffering.
Eventually, I was accepted into the human services program at New York City College of Technology, and was able to get a work-study job on campus. Three years after I left Rikers, I was finally able to save enough money to rent an apartment for me and my children. For the first time in six years, I was able to sleep in my own bed.
In late 2017, I began working for a child-welfare agency, the New York Foundling. Suddenly, I was one who picked up children and took them to visit an incarcerated parent — children who were like mine. I tried to make them understand that they weren’t alone and that things would get better.
After my release from Rikers, it was hard to let anyone into my life. I was focused on being a mother and I didn’t see making a future with anybody else. But while I was studying at City Tech, I met Karriem. We shared a smile whenever we’d see each other around campus. Eventually I worked up the courage to approach him.
I received my associate degree in human services and psychology in May 2016 and began working toward my bachelor’s degree. After our son, Karter, was born, our family moved to Winston-Salem, N.C., in August 2018. I’m still finding my footing here. It continues to be hard to find a job because of my past.
It took me losing everything in order to realize my worth and work at becoming a better mother and person. Still, despite all the obstacles and difficulties, we continue to strive, now and forever.