Reducing reoffending by keeping mothers and children together
From a blog by Pew Research
When Stephanie Petitt was arrested for violating probation for prior drug and robbery convictions, she learned two things: She was 16 weeks pregnant, and she would probably deliver her baby while incarcerated at an Oklahoma prison.
In most places, an incarcerated woman who gives birth almost immediately hands over her newborn to a social worker, who places the child with a relative or with foster parents. Petitt said she was told she would have an hour to hold her newborn.
Just a few states offer alternatives that allow mother and child to stay together longer. At least eight states have so-called prison nurseries where nonviolent female offenders live with their children for a few months to several years.
But in Oklahoma City, pregnant women who are facing imprisonment for nonviolent offenses can avoid doing time and stay with their children by participating in a program known as ReMerge. The program, which is also open to mothers who have already lost custody of their children, includes two years of intensive therapy, parenting classes and job training. Women who graduate have their charges dropped.
The idea behind them is clear: Diverting women from prison and keeping families together can save money and help break the intergenerational cycle of incarceration. Researchers say separating children from their mothers causes significant distress, and that children are more likely to end up in prison if they have parents there. And with the number of incarcerated women — and the cost of imprisoning them — on the rise in some states, the programs are drawing new attention.
Oklahoma City launched its program in 2011, spurred by Oklahoma’s high incarceration rate for women — the highest in the nation, both then and now.
Petitt was 27 and addicted to methamphetamines when she was arrested. She had already lost custody of her first two children, and planned on putting her next one up for adoption. But, she said, “as I sobered up, I felt the baby move, and I wanted to keep it.”
A judge sent her to ReMerge, and she had her baby while she was participating in the program. “The whole time I was getting high, I wanted to stop and be a mum again, but I just couldn’t stop,” said Petitt, now 30. “This gave me a second chance at being a mum.”
Program officials say ReMerge graduates have a 5 percent recidivism rate after three years, compared with about 13 percent for women who leave the state prison system. The low recidivism rates, however, don’t include the 30 percent of women who leave the program — many of whom end up back in custody.
There are a variety of parenting programs and therapy sessions in the program. Women who need dental care get it. Those who smoke are enrolled in a cessation program. They also get help finding jobs. The women aren’t permitted to own a cellphone until they’ve spent a month in the program. All of the women without a high school diploma must work toward a diploma, and nearly all of them spend the first 90 days in supervised housing. Participants also are barred from seeing people who aren’t vetted by ReMerge staff until they are months into the program.
Much of the program is geared toward helping the women beat their drug addictions. Nearly 60 percent of women in federal institutions are serving time for drugs, as are a quarter of women in state facilities. Others have committed crimes such as theft or prostitution in to pay for a drug habit.
When they graduate most work full time and have regained custody of their children. Some children had to be reintroduced to mothers they had forgotten. Some mothers had to resist what they call “parenting out of guilt,” trying to make up for their absence by giving in to children’s demands. But they all say they’ve re-established bonds with their children and tasted a better life that will keep them motivated.
Watch this inspirational 4 min video about how the program has affected the women that have participated:
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