Aid for imprisoned mothers rejected

Costs of newborn care too high, officials say

May 27, 2002|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

A would-be model program, planned for more than a year to help incarcerated women keep and bond with their newborn babies, has been scuttled because corrections officials say they can't cover its medical costs.

The $3.5 million program, called Tamar's Children, was to be one of the first in the country to keep female inmates with their babies in a special facility after they give birth. There, they would have received treatment and counseling for trauma, drug abuse and other ills that lead many women to prison, said Andrea Karfgin, a clinical psychologist who directs the project.

The mothers were to live at a state-owned building next to St. Ambrose Catholic Church in Park Heights, now used as a prerelease facility.

But Stuart O. Simms, secretary of the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, has told the organizers he couldn't provide medical coverage for the program at the prerelease center -- coverage that prison officials estimate would cost $200,000 to $300,000.

That denial -- two months after the program was supposed to open, and eight months after it received the first installment of a $1.2 million federal grant -- leaves organizers scrambling to create a smaller version that might handle women who could be sentenced directly to the program.

Leonard A. Sipes Jr., a corrections spokesman, said Simms remains "committed to the concept" and would explore other options. But, Sipes said, "The bottom line is that the dollars are not there."

Maryland's prisons and jails, like most others around the country, don't allow babies to stay with their imprisoned mothers. An average of 12 to 16 women give birth in custody each year.

Women who go into labor while at the Baltimore City Detention Center are taken to the University of Maryland Medical Center, where they sometimes deliver in shackles. When the women are sent back to jail, their babies go home with a designated relative or a foster family.

That's what happened to 20-year-old Jaqwan Dye, who gave birth about a week ago to her fourth child, a girl named Shalai. When she left the hospital May 20 to return to the detention center -- where she is serving a sentence for violating probation -- her daughter waited to go home with Dye's grandmother. Dye is to be released June 27.

"I stayed as long as I could," she said in an interview at the jail's maternity ward, where she displayed a photograph of her newborn. "I told her I loved her."

The program was to stop such partings for up to 100 mother-and-child pairs over three years, focusing on pregnant inmates from the detention center and women serving short sentences at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup.

Several states, including New York, Nebraska, California and Washington, run programs that let certain female prisoners live with their babies, according to a national survey by the American Correctional Association.

But Maryland officials say their program would have been unique in the amount of help provided to its families.

Officials who have supported the program -- from judges to doctors -- said they were disappointed.

"I hope this is temporary, because we still need to find a way to reach the inmates who are still behind the walls," said Ellen M. Heller, administrative judge of the Baltimore Circuit Court.

"I am concerned about the project not getting the chance to be successful, after the work that has been done," Dr. Hugh E. Mighty, chief of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Maryland Medical Center and head of a committee of officials participating in the project.

"If you look at the reasons most women are in prison, they're not hard-core criminals, so to speak," Mighty said. "They are often women who have been disadvantaged in some way."

Heller said she would support a smaller version of the program, but noted that some women who might have qualified for the original program likely couldn't participate because of their crimes and records.

"We'll hopefully still have some impact, but it'll be different," Karfgin said. "It loses its punch."

Then there is the question of whether a scaled-down program would still qualify for the grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which expires in 2004. Nancy Davis, SAMHSA project officer for the grant, said that organizers would have to submit a new application if the plan is modified.

But she said she is eager to consider alternatives. "We just desperately want to do something to get these children off to a better start," she said.

At the jail's maternity ward one day last week, two other mothers-to-be sat on beds with brightly flowered spreads, cradling their expanding stomachs. Charlotte Ervin and Brenda Hunt, each about six months' pregnant, were looking forward to getting out in time to deliver their babies in freedom.

Hunt said she had been having problems with her pregnancy and that jail officials had been slow to let her see a doctor. She longs for a spot in a drug treatment program, where she hopes to be sent this week.

Ervin said her 9-year-old son was looking forward to having a baby sister. His Mother's Day card and picture were displayed nearby. The card said: "I miss you. Hope you will be home soon."

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