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Visiting Mom, in prison: bill would launch visitation program for children of imprisoned mothers

(Kelsey Proud/St. Louis Public Radio)
The Women's Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia, Mo.

Last week, the Missouri House passed a bill that would make it easier for children to visit their mothers in prison. It would launch a two-year test program requiring the Department of Corrections to provide monthly transportation for kids to see their moms at the prisons in Vandalia and Chillicothe.

As St. Louis Public Radio’s Julie Bierach reports, supporters say, if approved, the bill could have an impact on recidivism rates in Missouri.

“Family reunification is challenging”

The bill is proposed by Democratic Representative Penny Hubbard of St. Louis, who has a background in corrections. She says when parents go to prison, the children often feel neglected.

“It also causes the children to act out,” Hubbard said. “And children need to know that regardless of the bad situation that they are still loved and cared for as well.”

At St. Vincent DePaul in St. Louis, Sister Jackie Tobin greets kids and caregivers as they arrive for a bus trip to the women’s prison in Vandalia. She is the director of Let’s Start, a non-profit dedicated to helping women in transition from prison life to society. They provide six trips per year to the Vandalia prison and two trips per year to Chillicothe. Sister Tobin testified in support of the measure last month. She says the relationships fostered during the visits are very important in keeping the moms out of trouble in prison.

“The other reality is that family reunification is challenging,” Sister Tobin said. “And when a woman comes out of prison and has to reunite with her children if there has been a total disconnect over a period of time, that reunification process is even more challenging than it is when there has been some connections.”

Keeping in contact

On this Sunday afternoon, dozens of kids of all ages are arriving. An older woman named Josephine checks in. She’s taking care of her four grandkids while her daughter serves a 10 year prison sentence. She says so far, her grandchildren are adjusted and doing well in school. But caring for them has its challenges. She wants to make sure that everything is in place for her daughter to take back the main parenting role when she gets out of jail.

Julie Bierach: “What kinds of things do they talk about with their mother?”

“Actually when we’re there, they act like we’re right at home,” Josephine said. “They still do their bickering, playful and we have a good time. They act the normal way they were acting when she went up there and still acting the same way now, home or not home.”

Josephine says money is tight, and without Let’s Start it would be difficult for her to take her grandchildren to the prison for regular visits.

“I just feel so fulfilled to keep my grandchildren in contact with their mother,” Josephine said. “And as long as I have breath in my body, they’re going."

Weighing the costs against a tight state budget

If approved, the program could cost up to $100,000 per year and would begin on Jan. 1, 2013. Last week, the bill passed the Missouri House by a vote of 126 to 23. Republican Representative Kurt Bahr of St. Charles is one of the representatives that voted against it.

“In a time when we’re struggling to pay for schools and roads, I think a new program isn’t the best idea,” Bahr said.

Bahr says there’s no reason for the state to pay for such a program when charities like Let’s Start are already providing the service. He says it’s not like this is an underserved group of people.

But experts don’t dismiss the impact the program could have on recidivism in Missouri. Beth Huebner, associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, says there are few studies about child visits and recidivism rates, but the small number that are available say it could have a positive effect. But, she says, $100,000 per year, especially with the state’s budget shortfall is quite an expense.

“But we know that recidivism is an even larger expense,” Huebner said. “So, if this is a way to give the moms something to lose, an incentive for them to do well on the inside, as well as on the outside, then perhaps this cost could pay dividends in the long run.”

Representative Penny Hubbard says if at the end of the two years the program is considered a success, then she would seek to expand the program to include fathers. The measure now goes before the Missouri Senate.


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