Alternative to prison is reopening

April 28, 2006|By JULIE BYKOWICZ | JULIE BYKOWICZ,SUN REPORTER

Tamar's Children is back - somewhat - for now.

The popular but troubled alternative-to-prison program for new mothers and their babies won an unexpected reprieve when the Court of Special Appeals reversed an earlier decision siding with the state in its efforts to close the program this month.

St. Ambrose convent in Northwest Baltimore, where the program has been housed for most of its three years, reopened its doors yesterday evening to two of the four women who had not completed the inpatient part of Tamar's Children.

The state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which oversees Tamar's Children, has until noon today to figure out what to do with the other two women and with the recent graduates of the inpatient program who still need outpatient services.

"It's good. I think," said Irene Smith, a lawyer for the Maryland Disability Law Center who has represented the women of Tamar's Children in their efforts to keep the program open.

The program, which focuses on substance abuse treatment and mother-infant bonding, has undergone much upheaval this year because the treatment providers, Potomac Healthcare Foundation and Tamar Inc., cannot get along. Potomac held the contract with the state, and Tamar Inc. was a subcontractor of Potomac.

Their relationship grew so contentious that it ended in a court battle and caused public safety officials to give up on the program.

In February, Tamar Inc.'s trauma counselors were told by Potomac, the substance abuse treatment provider, to pack up and leave. Days later, Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan ordered those employees be allowed to return to work.

This month, the state announced it would not renew Potomac's contract, but days before the April 21 expiration, Kaplan ordered Tamar's Children to stay open until the end of the fiscal year, June 30.

Last week, the Court of Special Appeals granted the state's emergency motion to stop Kaplan's order, and the four women remaining in the program were forced last Friday to move out of St. Ambrose.

With Wednesday's Court of Special Appeals decision, some of the women and babies can return.

"When I called the women to tell them we're back in, they were skeptical," Smith said yesterday. "I wanted to reassure them, but I don't really know myself."

Money for Tamar's Children will run out June 30, at which time all the court orders are moot. It does not appear the program will accept new clients.

Yesterday, based on the new special appeals order, Kaplan crafted another order outlining some requirements for the state. One was that two specific women and their babies be allowed to return to St. Ambrose last night. Kaplan also gave public safety officials until noon today to develop a plan to keep Tamar's Children operational for the next two months.

The public safety department will comply with the special appeals court's ruling and with Kaplan's subsequent order, said department spokeswoman Karen V. Poe. Public safety officials said they have no plans to continue Tamar's Children and are evaluating how best to provide services to pregnant women in the correctional system.

The Court of Special Appeals' about-face came after Chief Judge Joseph F. Murphy reviewed briefs recently filed by lawyers for the women of Tamar's Children, the public safety department and the treatment providers.

Murphy had made his earlier decision without having read those documents and said in that order, dated April 19, that his stay of Kaplan's order was good only until he had received everyone's briefs, at which time he could change his mind.

But the time between the two special appeals orders was potentially damaging to the mothers and their babies, Smith said.

The four pairs were placed in alternative residential programs. Some of the women left their placements in recent days, and Smith said yesterday that she was still trying to find everyone.

"They're going to need massive counseling just to deal with these recent traumas," Smith said. "For right now, we just need to get them into a safe place."

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

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