A break for bonding

April 01, 2003

Like dozens before her, Darlene gave birth to her daughter while a prisoner of the state. As is customary, baby Jasmine was taken from her mother at birth and placed with relatives. Mother and child would have remained apart until Darlene served her sentence for drug possession.

Instead, Darlene and Jasmine were reunited through an innovative program designed to give female inmates and their newborn children a head start in life.

Known as Tamar's Children, the project has been in the works for over a year. But bureaucratic bungles, logistical problems, community opposition and a recalcitrant corrections agency delayed its opening time and again.

When Mary Ann Saar became the new public safety chief under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., women judges and lawmakers urged her to back the project and get it on track. Time was running out on federal and private grants that would finance drug rehabilitation, career counseling and job training for nonviolent offenders who qualified for the program. In the do-it-now style of her former boss, William Donald Schaefer, Ms. Saar told her staff to make the project happen.

The loan of two state correctional officers is what it took to open the program last month in a state mental health center in Baltimore. Ms. Saar deserves the credit. She acted decisively and followed through on her decision - qualities others in state government should emulate.

For the former prosecutor and juvenile services chief, the decision was an easy one - because it was the right one. She recognized the impact of a strong parental relationship on the emotional well-being and success of a child.

Studies show that children who bond with their mothers at birth and forge close ties are less likely to get into trouble as young adults. Judges should consider Tamar's Children as an option when pregnant defendants come before them - Darlene enrolled as a condition of her parole - because children shouldn't have to pay for the crimes of their parents.

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