Imprisoned mothers and their children reunited.

(WOMENSENEWS)–After her release from prison Sherry Swanson, a heroin addict, shows up at the halfway house, reports to her parole officer and reaches out to her brother and sister-in-law who have been caring for her young daughter.

Their concerns over Swanson’s ability to be a responsible mother threaten her fragile relationship with her daughter. Her sobriety is challenged by the fraught situation and she has a hard time coping and figuring out how to be a good mother. She stumbles and is on her way to making a huge mistake when she manages to realize she has to take personal responsibility for her life.

Swanson, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, is the protagonist of "Sherrybaby," a film directed by Laurie Collyer that opened in a limited number of theaters nationwide on Sept. 8.

While she may be fictional, her story is shared by many women who, after release from prison, face a second round of punishment when they have difficulties regaining custody of their children.

The number of women in prison has increased almost nine-fold over the last 30 years, says Ann Jacobs, executive director of Women’s Prison Association in New York City. She says most are incarcerated for nonviolent property and drug crimes; 80 percent have, on average, 2.4 children, with 10 percent of their children placed in foster care.

Reunion Obstacles Hinder Re-Entry

To regain custody, women must often find a job that pays well enough to support themselves and their children, attend parenting and substance abuse programs, and study basic life skills. Many lack a driver’s license, hindering their ability to reach a job site or interview. Some lack a high school diploma or equivalency degree.

As felons, they don’t qualify for public housing and often they don’t have anyone to live with.

"One-third of women going through the criminal justice system are homeless. The real number probably exceeds two-thirds," says Jacobs. She suspects a higher number because court orders often prevent a woman from sharing a residence with her children and for the purposes of parole they will provide an interim address of a friend or relative when they are actually on the way to homelessness.

Halfway houses–a typical way station for women leaving prison–don’t take children. Parental rights of the women staying in them have often been terminated.

A federal law signed by former President Bill Clinton prohibits people with a drug felony from receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the federal welfare program that provides temporary assistance for five years or less to families living below the poverty line.

"The ban singled out drug offenses, but not rape or murder or other kinds of offenses that one might consider much more heinous and you’ve singled it out for lifetime punishment," says Jacobs.

Nearly half of the states opted out of the ban, voting instead to provide the benefits to former drug offenders who qualify. But some of the states–Mississippi and Texas–with the ban are the poorest and have the highest incarceration rates for women.

Proving Themselves After Foster Care

Perhaps most daunting to women seeking reunion with her children is when they have entered foster care. If that’s the case, they must prove themselves to judges and child welfare workers. Some find their paychecks garnished to reimburse municipalities for foster care costs.

Mother and child share naptime.

"It’s incredibly difficult to get a child out of foster care," says Kim Davenport, director of the Family Preservation Program at the Indiana Women’s Prison in Indianapolis, which admitted its first inmate in 1873 and is the oldest women’s prison in the United States.

The Family Preservation Program–which tries to alleviate some of the obstacles facing women after release–earned the National Commission on Correctional Health Care’s 2003 Program of the Year Award.

"Re-entry begins the day someone sets foot into the prison," says Davenport.

Her program strives to prevent children from entering foster care by offering a variety of resources–such as support groups and gas cards–to family members who can take care of the children while mothers are incarcerated.

Family Preservation–which is funded almost exclusively by grants or by the service agencies with which it collaborates–also offers incarcerated women classes on parenting, overcoming substance abuse and high school equivalency degrees, and college and trade courses.

Another huge hurdle to reunification is the weakened mother-child bond. Family Preservation addresses this by assuring frequent and varied types of visits. In a highlight, the program runs a week-long summer camp during which children spend days with their mothers, doing arts and crafts and going to a petting zoo on the prison grounds.

"We create a child-friendly environment," says Davenport.

The John H. Boner Community Center and Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis also work on helping formerly incarcerated mothers make the transition to life on the outside. "Our goals are to curb recidivism and prevent the women and children becoming at-risk," says Michael Bowling, pastor of Englewood Christian Church. The church helps find appropriate family housing near the church and the congregation helps the women become ready to apply for a mortgage by providing rental assistance, job training and financial management. James Taylor, executive director of the Boner center, says the effort is funded by the Indianapolis Foundation and the city of Indianapolis.

Households Committed to Reunions

A program in Canon City, Colo., provides three residential mission homes, each occupied by four children, three licensed foster parents committed to reunification of the family and four registered child-care workers.

The homes are run by New Horizons Ministries, which provides for the children while mothers are incarcerated at no cost to the mothers.

Crist Helmuth, child-care director of New Horizons, says foster parents continue weekly visits after mothers are released and children remain in homes or with foster families till the mothers have secured decent housing and adequate means to support the family and child care.

When the homes are full, New Horizons tries to find foster families with the same commitment. New Horizons has managed to get 85 percent of the children reunited with a mother or family member during 15 years, but the effort has faced plenty of struggles.

"Women go back," says Helmuth, referring to women who wind up back in prison for second and third times. "They can’t make it financially. They have to have their papers in order, identification and licenses, and find a job. It’s very tough."

Angeli R. Rasbury, a writer, educator, artist and lawyer, writes about women, girls and culture and works with youth in New York City.

For more information:


Women’s Prison Association:

Legal Services for Prisoners With Children: