North Carolina offers female offenders alternative to jail At Summit House, women serve sentences with their children

March 16, 1997|By AMERICAN NEWS SERVICE

As a teen-ager, Linda began selling sex for cocaine to suffocate the pain of self-hatred. She'd been abandoned by her alcoholic mother, molested by relatives and raped at age 14.

"I saw myself as this big, ugly dog," said Linda, who asked that her last name not be used. "I wanted to change. I'd go through spells - not get high for a month, relapse, then get in trouble for theft or breaking and entering."

At 20, she was a mother and a prostitute - and on her way to prison for probation violations. But the judge offered Linda an alternative: Summit House in Greensboro, N.C. There, she could serve her sentence while living with her 6-year-old daughter.

Women make up only 5 percent of the prison population, but most of them are mothers and the primary caretakers of their children. Locking mothers away may not only hurt their children but help perpetuate crime, according to some experts.

Now a handful of community-based programs around the country are letting female offenders do the time - with their children - in homelike, residential facilities.

Children of incarcerated parents are five to six times more likely to be incarcerated themselves, said Karen V. Chapple, C.E.O. of the Greensboro Summit House, a 1904 Victorian home restored by community volunteers with contributions from local businesses.

"If mom goes to prison, the majority of these children are taken care of by the maternal grandmother," she said, "which puts them back into the same dysfunctional family that the mother was raised in."

If Linda had gone to prison, her daughter might have lived with her alcoholic grandmother or been placed in a series of foster homes. Either arrangement could have damaged the mother-child relationship during crucial bonding years and left Linda's child at risk for a variety of mental and emotional difficulties, including the tendency to perpetuate the crime cycle, said Chapple.

What distinguishes Summit House and others like it, funded by state and private partnerships, is that the mother-child bond is considered central to rehabilitating the mother.

Mothering may seem to be an innate skill. But because of their own problems and history of abusive relationships, these women often don't know how to be good mothers, say those who work with them.

They do care about their children, though, and that's where the intervention begins sometimes, said Charlotte S. Arnold, executive director of the Program for Female Offenders, Inc., in Pittsburgh.

"They aren't always good moms when they come to us, but they want to be," said Arnold. "We teach them how to play with their child, to discipline their children without beating them."

Kim Kahill, a 32-year-old mother of four, doesn't want her children following in her footsteps. "My parents were alcoholics, and I just went for the same pattern," said Kahill, who did her time in the Pittsburgh program.

Classes are a help

Kahill faced prison for probation violations, after stealing a wallet out of a bar. But a judge gave her a second chance at the Program for Female Offenders. She lived there with two of her four children for six months in 1996. The other two lived elsewhere because the facility only allows children under age 8.

Kahill said classes on how to be a parent helped her learn how to be a better mother. Using role-modeling techniques, counselors showed how to hold or touch a child, how to discipline a child and encourage good behavior.

"Early on, during their stay, you watch these mothers with their children and you see that they are not sitting on the floor playing with them like the counselors are. They are sitting in a chair, not paying much attention. But as weeks go by, the mothers get down on the floor and play, too. They learn how to enjoy being with their child and how to be with a child," said Arnold.

Programs like this are a type of "alternative sentencing" and open only to nonviolent female offenders. On a typical day, mothers get up before dawn to get their children ready for school. Most programs offer day care for children who aren't yet in public schools.

Moms attend individual and group therapy sessions, plus courses that prepare them to get a high school equivalency diploma (GED) and pursue vocational opportunities. Classes in nutrition, personal finances and even etiquette round out the basic skills usually taught at the programs.

Although hard data are difficult to come by, anecdotal evidence and some individual studies indicate the approach may be working.

For example, a survey of women who served their time at the Program for Female Offenders in Pittsburgh found that only 15 percent had repeated their crimes, over a span of 20 years. That compares with a recidivism rate of 26 percent among female offenders in the local county and - more impressively 71 percent among female offenders nationwide, said Arnold, citing U.S. Justice Department figures.

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