A Tie That Binds: Fostering the Mother-Child Bond in a Correctional Setting

Article excerpt

In the United States today, there are 1.34 million women in prison, on probation or on parole. An estimated 75 to 80 percent of these women also are mothers. Can women who do wrong become good parents?

This article examines three Volunteers of America (VOA) programs that carry out society's demand for punishment and rehabilitation while fostering the bonds of love between mother and child. For many women, caring for a child in a controlled but supportive setting is a lesson in personal responsibility. These women return to society with new attitudes and values - self-sacrifice, discipline and hope.

Booth Family Apartments

In a modest residential neighborhood in Oakland, Calif., there is a two-story apartment complex built entirely around a large rectangular courtyard. Visitors might feel as if they've entered a nursery school. The courtyard echoes with the sounds of play as dozens of small children clamber on the jungle gym or pedal on brightly-colored "Big Wheels."

But the Booth Family Apartments, a service of Volunteers of America, Bay Area, has a different purpose. It is a minimum security jail facility. Approximately 40 women are serving time here for nonviolent crimes, and their children are here with them.

"We believe children deserve the best possible start in life, including the opportunity to bond with their mothers," says Kendall Johnson, assistant program director.

Meanwhile, she says, the women acquire the parenting skills, responsibility and emotional security that prepare them for successful reentry into society.

Mothers at Booth Family Apartments do most things that mothers do "on the outside." While it may sound like an unalloyed privilege, the reality is much more complex.

Mothers stay with their children hours a day unless they're old enough for preschool. For some, this is the first time they've had total responsibility for their children. "They learn what it means to be a full-time parent, with all of its satisfactions and frustrations," Johnson says.

While the children are in school or in the care of another parent, their mothers attend sessions on drug education, nutrition, literacy skills, resume writing and job readiness.

As a secure facility, there are strict rules at Booth Family Apartments. For example:

* All residents must submit to random drug testing, and all groceries are inspected.

* Living quarters must be kept clean.

* Mothers must discipline their children without hitting, yelling or other forms of physical or emotional abuse. Privileges are given to attend classes or church, look for work, or to accompany a child to the doctor or school. Residents must report in by phone when they arrive at a "pass sponsor's" home or business.

Mothers and Infants Together

Another innovative Volunteers of America program for female offenders and their children is called Mothers and Infants Together (M.IN.T.). Started 12 years ago in Fort Worth, Texas, M.IN.T. has served as a national model for other correctional systems.

[Other programs] even borrow the name," says Donna Bailey, assistant director of corrections services for Volunteers of America of Northern Texas.

Referred by sentencing judges or federal institutions, women enter the program in their seventh month of pregnancy. …