New-mom prison program at risk

State not planning to renew contract with Tamar's Children

April 12, 2006|By JULIE BYKOWICZ | JULIE BYKOWICZ,SUN REPORTER

Public safety officials have decided to end a popular alternative-to-prison program for pregnant women and new mothers called Tamar's Children, saying yesterday that they will not renew a contract that expires April 21.

The nine mothers now in the program will likely be moved to private residential treatment facilities under contract with the state to finish their counseling.

"It's going to be difficult for the women to recover from this news," said Laura Cain of the Maryland Disability Center, which represents the women in the program. "This is another trauma on top of all of the traumas that they've had."

A hearing is scheduled today in Baltimore Circuit Court in a contract-dispute lawsuit involving Tamar's Children, but it is unclear whether any ruling could change the state's decision.

The three-year-old program's future began looking shaky earlier this year, when the relationship between the two treatment providers, Potomac Healthcare Foundation and Tamar Inc., grew so strained that employees stopped communicating and one provider fired the other.

Richard Rosenblatt, who oversees medical treatment for the prison system, said he tried to save the program by mediating relations between the providers but that they could not reconcile.

"I felt like a marriage counselor," he said. "And I would always just walk away shaking my head."

Potomac officials could not be reached for comment yesterday. Tamar Inc. director Dr. Andrea Karfgin, who helped develop Tamar's Children, said she was "extremely disappointed" by the state's decision. "To end it when we're doing so much good for society is remarkable," she said.

Beginning in March 2003, Tamar's Children took in pregnant women who were sentenced to the alternative-to-prison program by judges or recommended by the parole commission.

The women, all nonviolent offenders with drug problems, lived at the St. Ambrose convent in Park Heights for six months - with their babies - after giving birth. Before the program, women would sometimes give birth while shackled to a prison bed and immediately be separated from their babies.

Rosenblatt said the public safety department recognizes the need to provide services for pregnant inmates and is "committed to helping them," whether through existing private programs or developing its own.

Tamar's Children has been supported by female leaders from Maryland first lady Kendel Ehrlich to city judges - and news yesterday of the program's demise was met with sadness.

"I'm very distressed," said retired Baltimore Circuit Judge Ellen Heller, who helped launch the program. "It's like a giant step back."

Heller said she would urge other female judges to meet with Public Safety Secretary Mary Ann Saar to persuade her to save Tamar's Children. One of Saar's first acts as secretary was to help the program get started.

Even the public safety officials who disbanded Tamar's Children said that, by some measures, the program was a success.

The program has about 50 graduates, and of those, Rosenblatt said, few have come back into the prison system. Tamar employees said four women have been rearrested, all for probation violations for substance abuse.

Many more have stayed sober, stayed out of jail, gotten jobs and houses and been reunited with their other children.

Karfgin said the majority of mothers and children who have gone through the program have as strong a bond as middle-class mothers and children do.

But Rosenblatt said that despite the low recidivism rate, the program was "dysfunctional." He noted the inability of the providers to work together and problems with the way it was run.

Complications have percolated for years, Rosenblatt said, because of the piecemeal funding from different grants that helped launch Tamar's Children. The grants each had different requirements, which Rosenblatt said made it difficult to run efficiently.

Federal funding for Tamar Inc. ran out at the end of September, and Rosenblatt said the only grant money available was for substance abuse treatment. Tamar Inc. does not focus on that kind of treatment, so public safety officials turned to Potomac to be the main contractor for Tamar's Children.

Karfgin said Potomac sidelined her company and, in late January, told Tamar it was no longer necessary.

Counselors for Tamar Inc. administer a kind of therapy called Circle of Security, which aims to work through traumas from the mother's past and develop her bond with her baby.

Karfgin said only four people in the world, including herself, are qualified to run the Circle of Security program and that it is the reason Tamar's Children has been so successful. But Rosenblatt said he is not aware of any research showing that Circle of Security is the best of the therapeutic programs for new mothers who have troubled backgrounds.

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