A single teenage mother struggles with her child's father in prison.
Brittany Wheeler lives with her mother, Linda, and her younger sister, Courtney, in a trailer court in The Plains, Ohio. It's a neighborhood made up of roughly 50 homes filled with working-class families, kids spilling out into the street playing basketball and parents walking their dogs. People are friendly and seem to know one another. NASCAR paraphernalia adorns the trailers. Dale Earnhardt Sr. peeks out from a window.
A wooden sign at the entrance welcomes you to the "Happy Valley Estates," but life in this community is not so grand for Brittany and her family. Linda is unable to hold a job because she doesn't have a car, and she can't afford one. She also has limited access to the Athens transit system. Brittany attended Athens High School, but dropped out in early March 2011. Circumstances at home forced her decision not to return. Not because she didn't care about school, but because her major responsibility as a young mother left her divided between concentrating on school and her duties at home.
It was shocking hearing it was because of me and Alexi that he went to jail. —Brittany Wheeler
Brittany, 17, has a two-year-old daughter named Alexi. She's a blond wisp of a baby, and when her grandmother holds her it evokes an almost biblical image. Daycare options for Alexi are slim and unreliable. With Linda in and out of work cleaning houses, Brittany struggles alone to provide for her daughter with the monthly $162 she receives from the county's Jobs and Family Services.
"If only Alexi's father were here," Brittany always says. "Then things would be easier."
In early 2008, Brittany laid eyes on Jamie Seeds. A charming 21-year-old, Jamie and Brittany's introduction was accidental. "Drunk as a skunk" he rode past her on his bicycle and crash landed in front of Brittany. The two soon began dating, spending every moment together.
Despite her father's strong dislike of the relationship, Brittany continued dating Jamie. She soon found out she was pregnant, and in what seemed like a moment later, Jamie was arrested for drinking and driving and sent to Southeastern Ohio Regional Jail for six months.
In 2009, Jamie got out of jail in time to see Alexi's birth. Trying to live up to his responsibilities, he made it to the hospital for the delivery and was able to hold his little girl. He didn't know what would happen when he signed the birth certificate.
As soon as hospital workers saw Brittany and Jamie's age difference, they obeyed the law and notified Child Services. The day after Alexi was born, Jamie was arrested and later convicted on eights counts of unlawful sexual conduct with a minor, a felony of the fourth degree. He is now serving a sentence of four years and 11 months at the Southeastern Correctional Institution in Lancaster, Ohio. When he is released in June 2014, Alexi will be five. Brittany will be 21.
Unlike the Ohio courts that sentenced Jamie, Brittany does not criminalize him for fathering her child. "It was shocking hearing it was because of me and Alexi that he went to jail," she says.
Brittany firmly believes that as soon as Jamie gets out, everything will be right in her world. In the meantime, though, she is working on getting her GED so she can go to college and get a job.
"I just want to be happy, because most of my life I wasn't," she says. "That's all I want, and that's all I want for Alexi."