By Colleen Flaherty
Thursday, November 25, 2010
Friends and advocates of female prisoners gave thanks for many things at a recent meeting in Harlem. One was a New York law passed in June that helps parents keep custody of their children while they are in jail, mostly for nonviolent offenses.
Smith has overcome her drug addiction and is now fighting to win back her parental rights. Recently, she saw her son for the first time in two and a half years; it warmed her heart that he still called her "mom."
"I want to see people have the same smile on their face I have every time I see my son," said Smith.
She says she was "one of the lucky ones," since her son was adopted by a family member rather than in foster care, but she knows the helplessness of having parental rights taken with little to no legal recourse.
"I have to fight so it doesn't have to happen to other people," said Smith.
Will Norris, project associate for the Initiative for Children and Family Services at the Osborne Association, a nonprofit advocate based in the Bronx, N.Y., talked about having to fight the widespread attitude that those in prison are no longer human and don't deserve basic rights.
However, he's seeing a change. "I'm thankful for what has transformed in this city and throughout the state," said Norris, a father who is 14 years out of prison.
His organization and others are now taking their message statewide to make sure the law is carried out. "We as advocates play an important role that it's not just on a piece of paper," said Norris.
Mia Savage, another committee member and formerly incarcerated mother ("a very good mother at that," she says), is currently fighting for her children in the state of Virginia.
New York is among the most progressive states in the nation concerning the rights of inmate parents in a country where 1.7 million children have a parent in state or federal prison. The Adoption and Safe Families Act is a federal law that has been amended by many states to further tighten the 15-month time limit.
"I see the need to push this legislation nationally," said Savage.
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Colleen Flaherty is a Women's eNews editorial intern and journalism major at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
Coalition of Women Prisoners, part of the Correctional Association of New York: