Mothers Do Time -- With Their Kids
As a teenager, Linda began selling sex for cocaine to suffocate the pain of self-hatred. She'd been abandoned by her alcoholic mother, molested by relatives and raped at age 14."I saw myself as this big, ugly dog," said Linda, who asked that her last name not be used. "I wanted to change. I'd go through spells -- not get high for a month, relapse, then get in trouble for theft or breaking and entering."At 20, she was a mother and a prostitute -- and on her way to prison for probation violations. But the judge offered Linda an alternative: Summit House in Greensboro, N.C. There, she could serve her sentence while living with her 6-year-old daughter.Women make up only 5 percent of the prison population, but most of them are mothers and the primary caretakers of their children. Locking mothers away may not only hurt their children but help perpetuate crime, according to some experts.Now a handful of community-based programs around the country are letting female offenders do the time -- with their children -- in homelike, residential facilities.Children of incarcerated parents are five to six times more likely to be incarcerated themselves, said Karen V. Chapple, C.E.O. of the Greensboro Summit House, a 1904 Victorian home restored by community volunteers with contributions from local businesses."If mom goes to prison, the majority of these children are taken care of by the maternal grandmother," she said, "which puts them back into the same dysfunctional family that the mother was raised in."If Linda had gone to prison, her daughter might have lived with her alcoholic grandmother or been placed in a series of foster homes. Either arrangement could have damaged the mother-child relationship during crucial bonding years and left Linda's child at risk for a variety of mental and emotional difficulties, including the tendency to perpetuate the crime cycle, said Chapple.What distinguishes Summit House and others like it, funded by state and private partnerships, is that the mother-child bond is considered central to rehabilitating the mother.Mothering may seem to be an innate skill. But because of their own problems and history of abusive relationships, these women often don't know how to be good mothers, say those who work with them.They do care about their children, though, and that's where the intervention begins sometimes, said Charlotte S. Arnold, executive director of The Program for Female Offenders, Inc., in Pittsburgh, Pa."They aren't always good moms when they come to us, but they want to be," said Arnold. "We teach them how to play with their child, to discipline their children without beating them."[EDITORS: OPTIONAL TRIM NEXT 4 GRAFS:]Kim Kahill, a 32-year-old mother of four, doesn't want her children following in her footsteps. "My parents were alcoholics, and I just went for the same pattern," said Kahill, who did her time in the Pittsburgh program.Kahill faced prison for probation violations, after stealing a wallet out of a bar. But a judge gave her a second chance at the Program for Female Offenders.She lived there with two of her four children for six months in 1996. The other two lived elsewhere because the facility only allows children under age 8.Kahill said parenting classes helped her learn how to be a better mom. Using role-modeling techniques, counselors showed how to hold or touch a child, how to discipline a child and encourage good behavior."Early on, during their stay, you watch these mothers with their children and you see that they are not sitting on the floor playing with them like the counselors are. They are sitting in a chair, not paying much attention. But as weeks go by, the mothers get down on the floor and play, too. They learn how to enjoy being with their child and how to be with a child," said Arnold.[END OPTIONAL TRIM]Programs like this are a type of "alternative sentencing" and open only to nonviolent female offenders. On a typical day, mothers get up before dawn to get their children ready for school. Most programs offer day care for children who aren't yet in public schools.Moms attend individual and group therapy sessions, plus courses that prepare them to get a high school equivalency diploma (GED) and pursue vocational opportunities. Classes in nutrition, personal finances and even etiquette round out the basic skills usually taught at the programs.Although hard data are difficult to come by, anecdotal evidence and some individual studies indicate the approach may be working.For example, a survey of women who served their time at the Program for Female Offenders in Pittsburgh found that only 15 percent had repeated their crimes, over a span of 20 years. That compares with a recidivism rate of 26 percent among female offenders in the local county and -- more impressively -- 71 percent among female offenders nationwide, said Arnold, citing U.S. Justice Department figures.[EDITORS: OPTIONAL TRIM NEXT 3 GRAFS:]Still, the mother-child approach, like other forms of alternative sentencing, may have trouble gaining popularity in this tough-on-crime age."It's politically safer to lock people up than put them in community programs. One offender in a community program instead of prison commits a crime, and it's fodder for the negative ad campaigns, the next election," said Eric Brenner of The Council of Governors' Policy Advisors, an affiliate of the National Governors' Association in Washington.Judy Baldwin, assistant director of the ARC Maternal & Infant Program in Madison, Wis., said: "The perception is that they live in this nice house on this nice street. But when people investigate our program, they see doing time is easier than being here. The women attend five (counseling) groups a week after working all day. They mow grass. Shovel snow. We teach them about life and work and cause and effect."[END OPTIONAL TRIM]Linda stayed at the Greensboro Summit House for about a year, until finishing in October. She said the strict environment and daily regimen taught her the connection between behavior and consequences."They put you on a point system. You get up on time, you get 1000 points," said Linda. "You do your chores every day, you get points. You lose points for cussing and for being disrespectful. You start modifying your behavior. You can't act impulsively anymore. You have to think. Nobody had ever taught me this stuff before."She now has a part-time job, after gaining her GED, and takes business courses at a community college. She's also a member of the P.T.A. at her daughter's elementary school and has learned that part of being a good mom is being involved in your child's education."I read to my daughter and do homework with her," she said. "At Summit, I learned how to be a parent. They had to teach me."