Creating a bond between mother, baby behind bars

Tamar's Children offers parenting skills, renewed hope for female inmates

March 31, 2003|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Christina Sexton tossed and turned in the women's detention center maternity ward last month, wondering what would happen to her first baby when it arrived.

"After I was arrested, I just kept praying and praying and praying, `God, please let me keep my baby,'" said Sexton, 25.

The outlook was disheartening. Many women inmates in Maryland give birth while shackled to a hospital bed, and all are separated from their newborns and returned to their prison cells.

But Sexton was given a chance to stay with her baby -- and to try to set her life on a new course -- with the opening this month of Tamar's Children, an innovative program to help pregnant inmates bond with their babies.

The program allows Sexton and other pregnant inmates, all nonviolent offenders, to spend their last trimester and their first six months of motherhood at the Walter P. Carter Center, a secure mental-health facility in Baltimore. There's space for up to 18 women at a time.

"We want to restore the dignity to these women and their newborns," said Ainisha Persaud, executive director of the program. "Every child is a blessing, no matter what circumstances it's in when it comes into the world."

Persaud and her employees used Easter egg colors and cheery decorations to dress up a sixth-floor wing. Pink couches and baby toys help give the space a less institutional feel than the rest of the building.

"And we have a bathtub!" said Tressa Harris, 26, who is five months pregnant.

State officials received a $1.2 million federal grant for the program about two years ago, but Tamar's Children languished as its administrators wrestled with details -- where it would be, who would staff it and what agencies would help pay for it. Prodded by the women's legislative caucus, Mary Ann Saar, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services secretary, gave Tamar's Children the green light about a month ago.

"We need this program," Saar said.

Unique program

Officials anticipate it will cost about $575,000 a year to run the program and are working to ensure that grants cover most of the costs even after the initial federal money is spent.

The program is unique in Maryland and is one of the few like it in the country. It's a welcome alternative for the nearly two dozen women who deliver while incarcerated in the state prison system each year.

Jude Cassidy, a University of Maryland professor who studies the mother-child relationship, said it's critical for all new moms to bond with their newborns.

"Babies don't look like they're doing much besides eating and sleeping and having their diapers changed," she said. "But they're learning the very basic sense of being calmed and soothed by a familiar person."

Cassidy, grant evaluator for the program, said that research is emerging to support the theory that babies who are deprived of the sensation of being nurtured can become troubled adults who turn to drugs and can continue the intergenerational cycle of incarceration.

The cornerstone of Tamar's Children is a highly regarded new therapeutic intervention called Circle of Security, which aims to build parenting skills by addressing the needs of mothers.

Tonya Randall, 29, said she hopes the program will help her rebuild relationships with her other children.

"I have four kids already, but I really don't know how to be a parent," she said, attributing her mothering lapses to drug addiction.

During the nine months they are in the program, the women will participate in substance-abuse treatment, group therapy, education and life-skills training. After their babies are born, the mother-child pairs will be videotaped in an effort to show the women how important they are to their babies.

"It's really an innovative and unique approach to the issue of pregnant women prisoners," said Brenda Murray, coordinator of the National Association of Women Judges' Women in Prison Project.

Participants such as Sexton, who is due in May, consider this their last -- and best -- chance to turn their lives around.

Sexton, who ran away from home at age 15, said she has been addicted to heroin for years and that her life has revolved around getting high. A former stripper on The Block who admits to stealing cars with a boyfriend, she has been locked up in four states.

She learned in February that she would soon be a mother, but the revelation wasn't enough to break her addiction. She was arrested for possession of the drug two weeks later.

`Just thankful'

"I knew in my heart that the only way I would detox is if I got locked up," she said. "I'm just thankful that it happened so soon."

To her amazement, the baby has a strong heartbeat and appears healthy. She chose to enter the Tamar's Children program instead of being put on a more traditional probation for her conviction.

Women enter the program either as a condition of probation or parole, or a judge can directly sentence them to the program.

Sexton said she's taking Tamar's Children more seriously than she has ever taken anything.

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