Program Keeps Moms, Kids United

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), January 11, 2003 | Go to article overview

Program Keeps Moms, Kids United


Byline: BILL BISHOP The Register-Guard

The phone rang unexpectedly one afternoon last May in Darenda Brown's tiny basement bedroom at Sponsors, the nonprofit 19-bed shelter in Eugene for women returning from prison.

It was a paralegal who was helping Brown fight the state's effort to terminate parental rights over her 10-year-old daughter and put the girl up for adoption.

Brown, who served almost two years in prison for forgery, had been caught up in a wide-reaching federal law requiring states to automatically move to terminate parental rights of imprisoned women whose children have been in foster care for 15 months.

Brown, 30, says she will never forget the horrifying uncertainty in the split-second after the paralegal asked her if she was sitting down. Brown dreaded what she might hear.

"It kinda feels like you're not going to win," Brown says. "They're telling you this adoption is probably going to go through."

But that was not the message.

Brown got her daughter back, thanks to strong advocacy by her public defense lawyer, support from Sponsors, the trust of a private employer who offered her a job as a cook, and her own hard work at turning away from substance abuse and focusing on being a good mother.

But other women inmates in Oregon and nationwide are giving up their children without a legal fight because they don't have information, legal advice and help to avoid losing their families, according to advocates who gathered Friday at the University of Oregon to launch Project Link-Up.

The project is an effort to connect women inmates with law students and other legal resources to deal with the legal requirements of the federal Adoption and Safe Family Act.

The law rewards states financially for moving children out of foster care into adoptive homes. It also allows women inmates to seek exemption from termination, but offers no support in helping them show they are worthy parents.

The law applies to both men and women inmates, but only to those whose children are in state foster care. Most of the estimated 200,000 children of imprisoned mothers live with relatives. No statistics show how many families have been affected since the law was passed in 1997.

Project Link-Up Director Carole Pope told an audience of 65 at the UO School of Law that the federal mandate is unfair to those who do not have relatives to take their children, falls disproportionately on families and communities of color, and ignores research that shows children commit fewer crimes when their mothers are involved in their lives.

Project organizers emphasize their goal is not to return children to parents who are abusive or incompetent, but to ensure that mothers know their legal rights, understand the termination process and are able to participate in the decision.

Beyond legal issues, they also advocate for parenting classes and social services to break the cycle of criminal behavior in families. Studies show 85 percent of children of imprisoned mothers offend as juveniles and also end up in prison, Pope said.

Most women inmates were sexually, emotionally or physically abused as children and lack the skills to be effective parents, Pope said.

"They are not the monsters the media portrays them to be," says Pope, who served time in an Oregon prison in the late 1970s and is now a consultant to community programs for women offenders. Less than 0.5 percent of women inmates are charged with child abuse, she said. Most are in prison for substance abuse and theft, she said.

"These women are not throw-aways. These children are not throw-aways. They are women with issues. They need our help," Pope said.

In Brown's case, no one warned her she would have to fight to keep her children when she agreed to plead guilty to forgery. …

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