Mothers in prison: maintaining family bonds

After lengthy court proceedings in Boston, Gwen Stokes was sentenced to prison in March 1982 for possession of drugs found in her car. Within 24 hours, staff members from Aid to Incarcerated Mothers (AIM) stepped in to help her decide what to do with her three children, aged 4, 11, and 14, before the state's social services department took responsibility for them. After considering the options, AIM did all the footwork necessary to find suitable foster homes for the children.

Throughout Ms. Stokes' 13 months in prison, AIM, a privately funded organization, paid regular visits to the foster homes, arranged for the children to visit their mother weekly, worked individually with the children to help them overcome personal problems, and paid for phone calls between Ms. Stokes and her children.

''They totally supported my family,'' Ms. Stokes recalls with visible gratitude. ''No matter what, they were there.''

The plight of mothers in prison is a hidden problem little understood or acknowleged by the outside community. Increasingly, however, programs such as AIM, which is one of the most comprehensive in the country, are being established in other states to help meet the special needs of imprisoned parents and their families.

Nationally, an estimated 60 to 70 percent of all women in prisons have children under 18. The majority of those are single parents with sole responsibility for their children.

While serving their sentences, including short terms of six months to a year, courts may consider inmate mothers ''unfit'' or ''negligent'' and put their children up for adoption.

''Inmate mothers are losing custody of their children in frightening numbers, '' says Ellen Barry, director of Legal Services for Prisoners With Children, based in San Francisco. ''In some cases adoption is the answer. Sometimes you have to use that option, but it should be a last resort.

''Many women in prison are confused about their right to custody,'' she continues. ''About 50 percent are forced to place their children through the state foster care system.'' Once children are placed in foster care, she says, ''intolerable burdens are placed on these women to get them back. Some parents spend years trying to get their children back.''

The needs of incarcerated fathers focus on problems involving visitation rights rather than actual custody of their children. Because women are usually the children's primary caretakers, the social service needs of incarcerated mothers are often more immediate and crucial.

When a woman is arrested, in most cases she is not given time to make arrangements for the care of her children before she is detained or to explain to them why she is going away and when she will be home again. Although a ''grace period'' is mandatory in New York and similar legislation is pending in Massachusetts, the decision in most states is left entirely up to the discretion of the arresting officer.

After an arrest, the department of social services is called in to arrange for foster care if the father or another close relative is unavailable. Often the arrangements are made with little or no input or approval from the mother herself.

In prison, the primary concerns of incarcerated parents focus on the frequency of visits from their children, visiting conditions, legal aid in child-custody cases, and the transportation necessary for family visits. Visitation difficulties

Many prison parents experience difficulty in seeing their children because of financial problems, a lack of transportation, limited visitation rights, and the fact that most prisons are often fairly distant from urban centers. Mothers may be hundreds or, for federal offenders, even thousands of miles away from their children.

Gwen Stokes describes the frustration experienced by inmate mothers at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Framingham. ''Some women hadn't seen their kids for two or three years before AIM was instituted,'' she says. ''Once the department of social services (took charge of) the children, the mothers never saw them again. AIM also helped find children who had been adopted - the mothers just thought they were in foster homes.''

According to Carole Shauffer of the Youth Law Center in San Francisco, visitation rights are a particularly acute problem for offenders serving short-term sentences (a year or less) in county and city jails where no visitation is allowed at all. ''Jails are just starting to look into ways to allow visitation,'' she says.

Keeping families together

It's really sad, because the whole system is separating families,'' says Carolyn McCall, co-director of Prison Match program, a weekend children's center at the Federal Correctional Institution for women at Pleasanton, Calif.

The penal system is designed to protect the outside community from the offender, and the social welfare system is designed to protect the child from the parent, she explains. These two opposing goals do not facilitate communication between the inmate parent and child.

In an effort to close the gap, New Mexico has set up a governors's commission on incarcerated mothers to unify the corrections department and the social services department. The need is vital for similar action in other states.

''Instead of cooperation between the natural mother (in prison), the social worker, and the foster parent, too often we see awkward, unsupportive situations ,'' says Ellen Barry, who thinks education and training is a means to build trust among these parties.

Some progress has been made.

In the AIM program, for example, volunteers are assigned to a mother in prison and serve as a liaison between the inmate and her family. AIM also hires a van to take their children for a weekly visit to the prison.

''Children need to know the facts to help them grow and be more positive in their life,'' says Jean Fox, the volunteer and transportation coordinator. ''It helps them to see they're not alone. The children help each other and support each other.''

Carole Shauffer says inmate mothers themselves emphasize the need for counseling programs for their children on the outside to talk over their concerns and get support.

Pregnant women in prison face special challenges. Usually, babies are taken from their mothers soon after birth.

At the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York, however, there is a nursery where children born after their mothers are sentenced may stay until they are a year old.

Under the Shared Beginnings program for women at the federal prison in Pleasanton, Calif., eligible inmates can be released in the last two months of their pregnancy and stay in a community halfway house for a short period after their children are born. In the California Mother-Infant Care program, eligible mothers with children through six years of age may live with their children in one of two community centers.

Unfortunately, says Ellen Barry, the California programs are currently underutilized. She believes allowing a prison parent to maintain contact with the child is not only important for a child emotionally, but can act as a powerful motivation for the rehabilitation of the incarcerated parent. The need for legal aid

''Although incarcerated women have a lot of legal problems, the most anxiety-producing ones are those that involve their children,'' Ms. Barry says. While legal services are provided on a limited basis around the country, ''many women in prison literally do not have access to attorneys.''

''I'm alarmed and concerned about the lack of responsibility on the part of the legal profession,'' she says, adding that it would help if lawyers took one or two cases a year.

Her own organization, which handles about 200 cases each year, does not deal with abusive parents. It only takes cases involving loving parents who are incarcerated for offenses unrelated to their parenting ability or caring for their children. Single mothers in poverty, for example, may commit welfare fraud , forgery, or some other economic crime. ''This is not to say crime is not a serious issue,'' Ms. Barry adds.

In Massachusetts, the AIM program also provides much-needed legal assistance in child-custody matters. Among other services, Evelyn Machtinger, the family support and advocacy program coordinator, sets up custody meetings within the prison, helps prepare briefs and witnesses for custody cases, and helps educate family members about the prison system and legalities affecting custody cases.

Many of these prison programs seek to educate the community about the needs of mothers behind bars and to remove the stigma of incarcerated women as unfit mothers.

''People really fail to recognize that women in prison can be good mothers and can continue to take that role if given a chance,'' says Jean Fox of AIM.

Ellen Barry finds there is often a great deal of public resistance to establishing a halfway house in a community. According to Ms. Barry, prison mothers who have gone through the rigorous and often frustrating selection process are extremely careful to protect that privilege.

Gwen Stokes comments on the need for community concern. ''No one wants pity, but they want help.''

When Ms. Stokes was released early from prison in January after her case was reevaluated, the first thing she did was go to the AIM office in Boston to offer her services. She now works for the organization about 30 hours each week, recruiting volunteers and visiting inmates. She receives a stipend from the Massachusetts Volunteer Service Program of the Commonwealth Service Corps.

Ms. Stokes breaks into a smile as she describes the anticipation of inmate mothers waiting to see their children on Wednesday nights. ''All the women are pressing at the window looking for their children. When the children get out of the vans you can just see the joy that comes over their faces,'' she says. ''I know I lived for Wednesdays.

''One reason I'm determined to work with AIM is because I know what the weekly visits meant to me,'' she says. ''If it wasn't for the program, I honestly feel I wouldn't have my children today.''

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