Two College of DuPage educators find common ground, build opportunities for former inmates

  • Stacie Haen-Darden said that Danica Hubbard's memoir, "Sex Offender: My Father's Secrets, My Secret Shame," is a powerful teaching and learning tool for her students, as it allows for nuanced conversations about a rarely broached topic.

    Stacie Haen-Darden said that Danica Hubbard's memoir, "Sex Offender: My Father's Secrets, My Secret Shame," is a powerful teaching and learning tool for her students, as it allows for nuanced conversations about a rarely broached topic. Courtesy of COD Press Photography

Updated 5/27/2022 12:12 AM

A chance conversation between two colleagues is opening educational doors for incarcerated individuals and college students in DuPage County going into justice studies and human service fields.

For College of DuPage English professor Danica Hubbard and Justice Studies instructor Stacie Haen-Darden, the work is both personally and professionally rewarding. But for Hubbard, it's also an instructional opportunity to share her compelling story of hardship and hope.


Personal revelations

During the pandemic, Hubbard uncovered 500 letters she had exchanged with her late father while she and her husband prepared to sell their house.

He passed away five years prior in a state prison hospice where he was charged, convicted, and sentenced as a child sex offender.

Although horrified when his crimes were discovered, Hubbard -- at that point married and pregnant with her second child -- felt it was important to maintain a relationship with her father and to remember him as a complex individual who made a series of terrible choices.

The discovery of the letters was a reminder of deep pain she had locked away for 20 years.

"Families related to sex offenders often suffer in isolation, engulfed in stress, silence and shame," she said. "When I found these letters, I thought, maybe it's finally time to take a look in the rearview mirror. The pandemic brought about all sorts of reflections and that whole framework lent itself to me putting pen to paper, writing a manuscript and eventually publishing a book."

A shared focus

While writing her memoir, "Sex Offender: My Father's Secrets, My Secret Shame," a unique crime story combining criminology and personal memoir, Hubbard uncovered a shared passion for humanizing the conversation around incarceration with Haen-Darden.

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A seasoned Justice Studies educator, Haen-Darden was applying for a U.S. Fulbright Program scholarship to teach COD's Justice Studies curricula to students in Turkey. She asked Hubbard, a 2019 Fulbright Scholar, if she would review her application.

"Connecting with Stacie at a time in my life when I was finally ready to share my story and use my pain toward good was serendipitous," Hubbard said. "Stacie has used her time at COD to not only educate future criminal justice professionals, but to help rehabilitate the incarcerated population right here in our own community. I knew I wanted to collaborate on a project together in one way or another."

Before the pandemic, Haen-Darden told Hubbard about COD faculty members who were involved in the college's partnership with the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, including Manager of Student Life Chuck Steele and English professor Jackie McGrath.

Through the partnership, in 2019, six youth in secured care at the Illinois Youth Center in Warrenville enrolled in courses at COD, enabling them to earn college credit. While COVID-19 has put a pause on the partnership, Hubbard and Haen-Darden are eager to shift gears and help other vulnerable populations access education.


"While incarcerated, and even after released from prison, people rarely get the chance to make up for the educational opportunities from which they've been excluded -- opportunities that impact their chances of re-entry success," said Haen-Darden. "If we can get them into courses at COD to help them complete or start their education, while addressing their unique individual needs, we can give them a trajectory, we can give them a chance."

Pain into practice

Working with Haen-Darden has been an important outlet for Hubbard's pain. She now speaks in Haen-Darden's Justice Studies classes, and has recently given presentations at Eastern Illinois University, Aurora University and at the Prevent Child Abuse Iowa Conference.

"I'm speaking to future criminologists, future social workers, future DCFS staff," Hubbard said. "And their questions are so poignant and provocative because some of them have not even been in a prison. They haven't experienced the sounds and sensory images of being in an institution. I always ask them to think about who they think a sex offender is, what they look like, what they sound like. We engage in a candid and honest conversation. Students share with me that my book made them stop and pause. Our dialogue can often change perspective and point of view, heightening awareness of incarcerated people and the collateral damage incarceration can have on families and friends."

Haen-Darden said that Hubbard's book is a powerful teaching and learning tool for her students, as it allows for nuanced conversations about a rarely broached topic.

"Textbooks are one thing, but having my students read Danica's book and then having her come in and talk about her experience with her father is critical," she said. "Her story is something we brush over. What impact does something like a father's or mother's crime have on a child? How do we talk about that and how are they seen? After reading her book, one of my students shared that growing up, many children weren't allowed to play with her because both of her parents were incarcerated. Another student shared that after a family member was killed, her family blamed the perpetrator's family even though they had nothing to do with it. Danica's book opens new ways of thought and conversation."

And although painful, Hubbard is glad that she found the letters when she did. It's allowing her to channel her grief into advocacy.

"Ironically, my mother's last faculty position before she died of cancer was working at the Illinois Youth Center in Warrenville," she said. "She was such a positive influence in the pathway I took in becoming a professor. Working with Stacie is like coming full circle, back to my roots in integrating thoughtful discussions about crime, offenders, victims, treatments and policy implications. These are the conversations I had with my mother at our kitchen table after she came home from teaching at IYC. And now I'm continuing the conversations through a myriad of vehicles including my book and exploring a variety of teaching tools with Stacie at COD."

Watch a video of Haen-Darden and Hubbard discussing the collaboration on the College of DuPage YouTube channel.

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