Tamar's Children adrift still

September 27, 2002

AFTER MOUNT VERNON residents vehemently opposed locating Tamar's Children, a program for pregnant inmates, in their neighborhood, Maryland's top prison official vowed to keep searching for a site for the innovative project.

But a month later -- and now 18 months after advocates got the go-ahead for the project -- the program still hasn't opened. What a shame that such a good idea, backed by nearly everyone involved, can't overcome bureaucratic snags and delays to become a reality.

In the last month, prison officials say, they offered project coordinators space at the Walter P. Carter Center, a state mental health facility in the city. But there was one small problem. At the time, there were no pregnant inmates eligible for the program: Some candidates had been paroled.

A fluke, perhaps, but a problem nonetheless. Then other questions began to surface: State lawyers raised legal concerns about where inmates with children could be housed.

Already, the program has had to overcome delays related to money, medical staffing, liability and location. Program operators thought the wait was over when prison officials settled on a former halfway house in Mount Vernon. But area residents who received little notice about the project succeeded in scuttling the plan last month.

And on it goes.

Named for a rape victim in the Bible, Tamar's Children would be among the first programs of its kind in the nation. The goal of the program is admirable -- to strengthen the bond between mother and child and stem the cycle of crime in families at risk. Women inmates selected for the program would no longer have to surrender their babies after birth. They would receive counseling, job training, drug treatment and housing aid in a community-based setting for as long as six months.

Another plus is that sponsors have raised nearly $3.5 million in federal and local grants for the program.

Among the program's staunchest allies have been women judges. They have pressed prison officials and the governor's office to fulfill their commitment to it.

So what's the problem? Prisons chief Stuart O. Simms has backed the plan from the start. "I believe this is going to roll," he said last month after the Mount Vernon dispute. "I've always believed that."

A lot of work has gone into this project. It would be a shame to let it wander adrift forever.

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