Judge extends prison alternative

But state says program for new moms is `way beyond saving'


Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan ordered yesterday that Tamar's Children, an alternative-to-prison program for new mothers, remain open until July 1.

But public safety officials said they plan to end the popular program when their contract with one of the treatment providers ends next week -- and that they will appeal Kaplan's ruling.

Public Safety Secretary Mary Ann Saar, who helped launch Tamar's Children as one of her first acts as secretary, said yesterday in an interview before Kaplan's hearing that the program is "way beyond saving."

"I can't afford to have vulnerable women in the dysfunctional structure that it has devolved into," she said. "There comes a point in time when you have to say enough is enough. These continual court fights -- the women are not benefiting."

The two treatment providers, Potomac Healthcare Foundation and Tamar Inc., have been fighting since the beginning of the year. Potomac fired Tamar Inc., its subcontractor, at the beginning of February, but Kaplan ordered the employees back to work until the end of the contract.

Yesterday, the judge extended Tamar Inc.'s employment until July 1. But Tamar Inc. has no contract with the state, making the impact of Kaplan's ruling unclear.

"We can't pay somebody with whom we have no contract," said Karen V. Poe, a public safety spokeswoman.

Brian Moffet, a lawyer for Potomac, said his client's obligation with the state ends April 21 and that Potomac will leave Tamar's Children at that time. If the state loses its appeal, it would likely have to find another treatment provider to step in.

Kaplan said he based his decision on the state General Assembly's recent budget allocation of $270,000 for this fiscal year, which ends June 30, for Tamar's Children. The emergency funds were earmarked specifically for Tamar Inc.

Tamar's Children, which began in March 2003, accepts pregnant women who were sentenced to it by judges or recommended by the parole commission. After giving birth, the participants, all nonviolent offenders with drug problems, and their babies live for another six months at St. Ambrose convent in Park Heights.

It's a change from typical prison protocol, which sometimes includes mothers giving birth while shackled to a bed and the immediate separation of the mothers and newborns.

The program has drawn the acclaim and support of women judges and politicians -- including first lady Kendel Ehrlich -- and has been widely viewed as a success.

Of about 50 women who have come through Tamar's Children, four have returned to the prison system, all for probation violations involving drug abuse relapses, according to program employees.

Dr. Andrea Karfgin, who runs Tamar Inc., helped develop Tamar's Children. Tamar Inc. provides a type of therapy called Circle of Security, which helps the new mothers work through past traumas and develop strong bonds with their babies. Karfgin's company ran the program until the end of September, when its federal funding expired.

Public safety officials secured a substance abuse treatment grant to continue the program, and they turned to Potomac to be the main contractor because Tamar Inc. does not focus on substance abuse treatment. As part of its contract with the state, Potomac also operates the St. Ambrose facility.

Potomac and Tamar Inc. promised to work together but failed to develop any functional relationship, said Richard Rosenblatt, who oversees medical treatment for the prison system.

After the hearing yesterday, some of the women, who had brought along their babies, said that both Karfgin's therapy and the substance abuse treatment were important.

"The mental health part helps me with substance abuse," said Tracey Johnson, 29. "I need both."

Rosenblatt said the unwillingness of the two providers to work together left public safety officials with no choice but to end Tamar's Children.

Yesterday in court, Kaplan said the discord between the providers "amounts to childish behavior."

"I'm very dismayed that responsible people could not reach an agreement," the judge said.


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