Tamar's Children closes

The alternative-to-prison program, damaged by internal feuds, sends off final graduates

Alternative program ends

April 22, 2006|By JULIE BYKOWICZ | JULIE BYKOWICZ,SUN REPORTER

The women and babies gathered among toys and strollers in the living room of a convent in Northwest Baltimore to watch what was to be the final graduation for Tamar's Children.

At the ceremony this week, homemade videotapes rolled one after another, each beginning with shots of a very pregnant woman and ending with a mother cooing at her gurgling baby. Joe Cocker's "You Are So Beautiful" provided the soundtrack.

After watching her video and listening to other mothers give her words of encouragement, Tracey Johnson, 29, stood up, balancing her smiling 4-month-old on her left hip, to accept her graduation certificate.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Maryland section Saturday about Tamar's Children incorrectly identified the appellate court that granted an emergency motion by the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services on the program. It was the Court of Special Appeals.
The Sun regrets the errors.

"I'm shocked at myself that I decided to make a change in my life," Johnson said, giving an impromptu speech. "I've never completed something in my life. I've never felt good about myself. I love you. Thank you."

Three years after it began - and despite accolades from women legislators, judges and first lady Kendel Ehrlich - Tamar's Children, a popular alternative-to-prison program for new mothers, shut down.

The four women who still had weeks or months of substance abuse treatment and psychotherapy to go before their own graduations packed their belongings in boxes and trash bags and moved with their babies to other residential programs.

"The day went very smoothly," said Karen V. Poe, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which oversaw Tamar's Children. "All of the clients who were still at St. Ambrose have been successfully placed. All of their needs have been accommodated."

A lawyer for the women gave a decidedly different account.

"It was absolutely the worst thing in the entire world," said Irene Smith of the Maryland Disability Law Center, which helped the women go to court to try to save the program. "The state should be totally ashamed to retraumatize the women in this way. It's devastating."

Public safety officials decided last week not to renew the contract of its main treatment provider, Potomac Healthcare Foundation.

A Baltimore Circuit judge who said he strongly believed in the program tried to keep it alive until July, the start of the new fiscal year, but the Court of Appeals sided this week with state officials. Potomac's contract expired yesterday.

Richard Rosenblatt, director of medical services for the public safety department, has said the state decided to abandon the program because Potomac and its subcontractor, Tamar Inc., could not get along.

The feud between the two grew so contentious that it landed in Baltimore Circuit Court in the form of a lawsuit and hearings that devolved into shouting matches between the lawyers.

"It seems like no one cares about us," said Valerie Garrett-Miller, who with her 7-month-old daughter remains in Tamar's Children's outpatient program. The two attended Wednesday's graduation ceremony at St. Ambrose. "All they care about is who wins."

Public safety Secretary Mary Ann Saar helped get Tamar's Children off the ground within weeks of taking office, but she said last week that fighting between the providers had made the program "dysfunctional" and rendered it "way beyond saving."

Before Tamar's Children, women would be separated after birth from their babies. Any future bonding would be done through a Plexiglas window in a prison visitation room.

Tamar's Children focused on substance abuse treatment, provided by Potomac, and mother-infant bonding, provided by Tamar Inc.

Dr. Andrea Karfgin, who runs Tamar Inc., helped develop Tamar's Children, but when federal funding ran out last fall, the state secured residential substance abuse treatment money, meaning it was necessary for Potomac to play a bigger role.

Pregnant women with drug problems and nonviolent criminal histories were eligible for the program and could be sentenced to it by a judge or recommended by the parole commission.

After giving birth, the women and their babies lived at St. Ambrose for six months. Graduates continued to receive services as outpatients.

By some measures, Tamar's Children was a success - something public safety officials have acknowledged.

About 50 of the 60 women who have participated have graduated and, of the graduates, only four have come back into the prison system, all for parole violations from drug relapses, according to Tamar's directors.

"I'd be pretty happy with those numbers if I were running the program," said Adam Brickner, president of Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems.

Pointing to confidentiality, public safety officials would not release a list of the women who have participated in Tamar's Children or give specifics about the recidivism rate of the women who did not complete the program.

But a criminal records review of women who have agreed to speak to the news media over the years showed that several participants - possibly in addition to the four women who violated their paroles - have been rearrested for such crimes as prostitution, drug use and theft.

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