By Mark Powell
Newborns Growing with Moms, Moms Growing in Recovery
When a baby is born, a window opens on a special time for mother and newborn. One of life’s most important bonds is formed over the following weeks and months. When it’s strong and healthy, that bond can produce results for a lifetime.
But what about mothers who are incarcerated when their child arrives? What about women who struggle in their parenting role? And what about the life that has just begun; what does the future hold for that baby?
Understanding the importance of those early bonds, the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) created the Moms and Babies program in 2007. It provides women who give birth while in custody an opportunity to be with their child while learning parenting skills that will make them better mothers.
“The women realize this is an important opportunity for them,” says Jane Moskus, acting warden at Decatur Correctional Center. “Mothers are able to bond with their child directly from birth. They do a lot of programming, share a lot of family visits, and spend lots of one-on-one time together. That’s essential."
Administered by IDOC, the program is located at the Decatur Correctional Center. Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities (TASC) has provided case management services for the program since 2012. Pregnant mothers who come to the department of corrections have the opportunity to be screened for eligibility into this program. Women who meet the criteria for the program are moved to Decatur Correctional Center, where they are placed in a special housing unit with other Moms and Babies participants.
“It’s one mom, in one room, with her baby,” explains former Decatur Warden Shelith Hansbro. “They share a bathroom and common areas, but otherwise have privacy.” “It feels more like a nursery than a prison.”
Once a mom is in the program, TASC provides pre- and post-release case management. During the pre-release phase, the TASC pre-release case manager meets with the moms to establish a relationship, help the moms identify their strengths and needs and begin the reentry planning process. The case manager also helps the mother develop goals and matches her with necessary resources, such as having a place to live. Additionally, participants attend classes where they learn about skill building, effective parenting, codependence, money management, anger management, and relationships with men, among other things. They attend AA and/or NA weekly. Baby Talk staff come in to work with the moms and babies once a week and do “Home Visits” with each mom weekly. Education is a priority and the moms who are in the program take academic classes in order to earn a GED if they don’t have one and they can take college courses as well.
In the post-release phase, the post-release case manager works with the mother in her community, meeting with her weekly (in her home) in the first few months after release, and then one to two times per month after the mom and baby have transitioned and are stable. The post-release case manager assists the moms with the identified goals, as well as accessing community resources when needed. Participants are typically supported for a year after their release.
“Whether this is the mother’s first or fifth baby, this may be the first baby that she has been able to parent,” says Deana Elmore, TASC program administrator. “Just having that bonding experience and hands-on experience of taking care of a baby is so important. It also gives an incentive to change.”
The program is striking a chord with participants. In the dozen years since it was established, 95 women have participated in Moms and Babies. The program boasts a 90 percent success rate.
Moms and Babies is the only program of its kind in Illinois, and one of only a handful in the nation. Hansbro was even invited to talk about it in New Zealand last February.
“I remember a mother [in the Decatur program] who had five children, including her new baby,” Hansbro concludes. “Many were skeptical about her even participating in the program. But she did and she completed it. She later told us, ‘This program not only helped me with my infant, but it helped me be a better mom to my other children. I realized I could, and I owed it to myself and my kids to be a better mother.’”
Now, thanks to the skills she learned through Moms and Babies, she is.
Moms and Babies was a featured award winner in the 2019 Innovation Now project of the Addiction Policy Forum.
J. Mark Powell is an author, former network journalist, and veteran communications expert.