A week ago, employees of an acclaimed alternative-to-prison program called Tamar's Children were forced to pack their boxes and leave the new mothers with whom they had bonded.
Yesterday, after an emotional court hearing complete with crying babies and their crying mothers, a Baltimore Circuit judge sided with the fired employees, ordering that they be allowed to return to their jobs immediately - even as Tamar presses forward with its contract-dispute lawsuit against the state.
"This is not just a contract," said Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan. "This involves the lives of many women and children."
The mothers cheered and applauded when the judge made his ruling. "They have become like our family," Valerie Garret-Miller said of the Tamar employees. "It's been a mess without them."
Tamar's Children has been lauded by judges and researchers as a successful way to break the cycle of drug addiction and build bonds between mothers and their newborns. Pregnant women who are convicted of nonviolent offenses can be sentenced to the residential program, based at St. Ambrose Catholic Church in Northwest Baltimore, so that they don't have to give birth in prison.
But Tamar's Children, which is about to begin its fourth year, was thrust into chaos when employees of Tamar Inc. were forced out Feb. 10. That's when the Potomac Healthcare Foundation assumed control of the program. That foundation is managed by Baltimore psychiatrist Dr. Marc Fishman, who also runs the Chesapeake Youth Center on the Eastern Shore - a psychiatric facility that has faced allegations of patient mistreatment.
The Tamar mothers said they have been fending for themselves for a week, having had no therapy and eating ramen soup because there was so little food in the building.
Brian Moffet, a lawyer for Potomac, said the mothers were receiving services. When the mothers all vigorously shook their heads, Moffet added that Potomac's "hands are tied" because Tamar Inc. employees took the files detailing the women's histories and treatments.
Even with the judge's order, more problems are to come for Tamar's Children because the state contract with Potomac ends in April, and no one knows what will happen to the program.
Potomac received the contract because federal grant money paying for the program is earmarked for substance abuse treatment, and it is Potomac - not Tamar Inc. - that specializes in substance abuse treatment.
Potomac agreed in an oral contract to work with Tamar Inc., which has provided trauma counseling and a specialized mother-infant bonding counseling called Circle of Security, for Tamar's Children participants. But Potomac decided this year to stop working with Tamar Inc. The seven Tamar Inc. employees who were fired - including Dr. Andrea Karfgin, who helped establish the program - said they were never told why.
"At the end of the day," Moffet told Kaplan, "what you have is the lawful termination of an oral contract."
Kaplan decided, though, that Potomac did not give Tamar Inc. a reasonable amount of notice that the contract would be ending and ordered that the employees be returned to their jobs until April, when the state either extends its contract with Potomac for a year or puts out a bid for the operation of Tamar's Children. If a bid goes out, Kargin said, Tamar Inc. will apply.
"This is my baby," Kargin said of Tamar's Children.
A lawyer for the mothers likened the situation with Tamar's Children to a divorce, saying that the "stay-at-home parent" was "ripped from their lives" while the "neglectful parent" took over.
"The women now fear for their safety and the safety of their babies," said Irene Smith, a lawyer for the Maryland Disability Law Center, which is representing the 13 mothers enrolled in Tamar's Children.
The mothers wrote affidavits complaining about how they have been treated by Potomac employees.
Heather Crompton said she gave birth to her baby girl on the floor of St. Ambrose because the employees waited too long to take her to the hospital and never called 911.
Brenda Jones wrote that she did not trust Potomac staff members because they refused to take her to the hospital for a tooth infection so bad that it made her face swell. When she did go to the doctor, she learned that she had blood poisoning from the infection and had passed the poison to her son through breast-feeding, giving him jaundice.
Standing outside the courthouse yesterday with her 6-month-old baby girl, Sandra Heuisler said the Potomac employees were not "loving and caring."
"They're more like baby sitters," she said. "They're sleeping on the job."
Moffet, the lawyer for Potomac, said that "as shocking as the stories are, they're not true."
The mothers' complaints about Potomac are similar to complaints about another Fishman agency, the Chesapeake Youth Center. There, a 15-year-old girl went without eyeglasses for three months and two other teenage girls were denied timely medical care for urinary tract infections, according to a Dec. 16 state report on the facility.
Richard Rosenblatt, who oversees medical treatment for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said Potomac has "a good reputation."
He said the department's experience with Potomac, which had been involved in Tamar's Children to a lesser degree for several years, has been positive. "Given that," he said, "the problems with the Chesapeake Youth Center are irrelevant."