Marla Thao: Rebuilding Family Ties

Editors Note: The following is part 2 of our series on Marla Thao’s reentry into society. When talking about people convicted of crimes,  there’s a tendency for society to believe those incarcerated can be effectively isolated from society without impact on others.  The truth is, it’s a lot more complex than that and there’s often a huge impact on parents, siblings, sons and daughters. In the following post by Jessica Hunt, Marla talks about the challenges she faces in reconnecting with her family.

Post by Jessica Hunt

Marla Thao

After a felony conviction and prison sentence alienated her from her family and kept her separated from them for much of eight years, a large part of Marla Thao’s efforts to rebuild her life revolves around seeking reconciliation with her family.  She is starting to come to terms with her difficult family past while also beginning to overcome barriers in forming a relationship with her own daughter, who is now eight years old.

A child of Hmong immigrants in St. Paul, Marla struggled in her attempts to live in-between the Hmong culture she was born into and the U.S. culture she encountered on the streets daily.

Her family relations were at times, both physically and verbally abusive and her search for acceptance led her into a relationship with a meth-using boyfriend who eventually became abusive and convinced her to turn to prostitution for money.

She became pregnant with her daughter and soon her “boyfriend” began luring more girls into prostitution, using their apartment as the base of operations.

Because she was involved and did nothing to stop the operation, Marla was convicted of three counts of promotion of prostitution with minors, aiding and abetting.

After serving eight years in prison, Marla is transitioning back into the community, but still faces three more years of probation. Living in her family home has given her more stable financial footing, but it still poses a special challenge for her. Marla has not lived at home since she was a teenager and personal interactions with her immediate family had been relatively rare before her release.

Marla says that her parents still find it difficult to understand her need to seek support from outside her family.

“They don’t understand why I have to take groups.  I am a socialized person and in our culture being a woman and being socialized, like going out with friends, is not normal and not acceptable. I know they are trying to protect me, but sometimes that drives you away. So it’s a struggle.”

In contrast, Marla found it was easy to relate to others who were incarcerated at MCF-Shakopee because they had experienced similar things.  Marla reflects that one particular lesson she learned was how to choose her friends more wisely.

“You can choose to hang around with people who don’t care about anything, or who want to get in trouble all the time and want to be in the drama,” she said. “Or you can choose the people who want to change.”

Finding time for friends is challenging as well because of her busy schedule. In addition to working full-time in a data entry position, Marla currently attends school part-time at Metropolitan State University, where she is majoring in social science.

“I want to change; I want to turn my life around,” she said.

Reconnecting with her daughter has been a significant part of the transition process for Marla. Because the terms of her sentence barred her from living near minors, Marla had to persist in order to obtain visitation rights with her daughter

Marla is now permitted to have supervised visits with her daughter and she continues to attend therapy, but she’s learning that she needs to take things slowly in her reconciliation with her daughter,  recognizing that the eight-year-old has built important bonds with others in Marla’s absence.

“(She) also has a mother who has been there for her; that is my sister,” Marla said. “And she has a dad, which is my brother.”

Looking back on her own negative experiences growing up in her family, Marla is determined to form a more positive parental relationship.

“The transition back into her life is going to be hard. But I will do it on her terms and not on my terms,” Marla said. “I want to have my daughter in my life right now and be there for her. But for me…I cannot do that right now… I have to be financially secure, have to reestablish myself out here so I can be there for her and raise her in a healthy way…I love her, I am just trying to get myself healthy and take care of myself first.”