Mennonite group that cares for babies of jailed women needs to be licensed, says report

By Carolyn Davis

Inquirer Staff Writer
A Mennonite group that arranges foster care for babies born to incarcerated women in Philadelphia would need to meet the same licensing and oversight requirements as any foster program, and have the children in its care monitored by the Department of Human Services.

Those are among the recommendations in a report the city Office of the Inspector General issued Tuesday, and are part of an agreement worked out between DHS and the Philadelphia prison system since DHS chief Anne Marie Ambrose learned of the Mennonite program last spring.

No children have been placed with the group since then, and that will continue until its members are formally certified as foster families in Pennsylvania.

The 31 children who as of last month were still with Mennonite families - mainly in Lancaster, Cumberland, and Lebanon Counties - apparently will be able to stay with them. The mothers of those children are no longer in prison and have agreed to allow the Mennonites to continue foster care.

"There's no discussion of retroactivity," Ambrose said.

According to a new prison policy, Riverside Correctional Facility social workers will help inmates find placement for their babies. If no relative can be found, DHS will be notified. The birth mother in most cases should still be able to decide who will care for her child.

If the Mennonite group goes through the state process to become a certified caregiver, "then we would have no problem with the Mennonites," Inspector General Amy Kurland said in an interview Tuesday.

Ambrose's concern triggered the inquiry into the long-running, informal Mennonite Caregivers Program, which says it has fostered 91 babies born to women incarcerated at the Riverside facility over 12 years. Forty-nine were returned to their birth mothers and 11 have been adopted by their Mennonite families.

"To allow children to be placed with an unlicensed social services agency, without any formal recordkeeping process or monitoring, put them at great risk," the inspector general's report says.

A Mennonite group member said she had not seen the report but had heard requirements were going to be imposed. "There are mixed feelings," said Carol Wise of New Holland, Pa. "It's disappointing to have our simple program closed, but there are times when we have really appreciated DHS's help."

The report describes how Riverside chaplain Phyllis Taylor and chaplains before her, along with the nonprofit Maternity Care Coalition's MOMobile program, pressed women to let the Mennonite Caregivers Program care for their newborns if no relative was available.

Taylor and MOMobile did so even though their contracts did not say they would help women make foster-care arrangements.

Prisons Commissioner Louis Giorla let Taylor work beyond her contractual duties, the report said. But MOMobile staff continued to help women make foster-care arrangments even after repeatedly being told by the Riverside social work supervisor that they must stop.

Officials at the Maternity Care Coalition could not be reached for comment. An after-hours message left on Taylor's phone was not returned by press time. A prison spokesman said the relationships with the coalition and Taylor, both of whose work is otherwise well-regarded, was being examined.

One of the troubling issues with the foster program, the inspector general's report says, is that the contract does not hold the Mennonite families responsible for the well-being of children under their care.

While there were no proven problems in how the Mennonites have treated the children, the report cites one instance when Taylor was informed of alleged abuse and did not tell DHS, instead investigating it herself and concluding that the accusation was unfounded.

That is no way to investigate an abuse allegation, the report says.

"There have been no controls at all," Kurland said.

There also is not sufficient paperwork - prison and Mennonite records do not match - to determine how many children the Mennonites have fostered and all of their whereabouts.

Wise said she was unsure whether recommendations and policies also would apply in cases where the birth mother had been released from prison. City officials also did not have an answer to that.

Wise said the group had kept clear records and provided them to city investigators. Her group, she said, is talking with another Mennonite ministry outside Pennsylvania to develop a formal foster-care program that will meet city and state guidelines.

While she and other families are glad to work with DHS, Wise said, she mourned the loss of early contact with incarcerated pregnant women and the ability to develop an ongoing relationship with them. Helping the mothers is part of the Mennonite prison ministry along with helping the children, she said.

"That's the part that hurts," she said, "not being able to witness and be friends to these women."

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Prison Programs

It's an interesting intiative... I'll have to look more into this because church involvement (through prison programs) is very common and widely known.  Although not church-affiliated, there is one program that seems to be good for both incarcerated mother and baby is the Prison Nursery Program, but that has not been without arguments and controversy, too:

 a new program allows some inmates to keep their newborns in their cells for up to 18 months.

The program debuted last month, becoming the sixth in the nation in a growing trend among state prison systems.

New York has had prison nurseries for more than a century; Washington, Ohio, California and Nebraska started ones in recent years, and West Virginia is preparing to launch one, too.

The programs come at a time when the nation's female inmate population is rising.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics shows the number of women in prisons and jails jumped from more than 163,000 in 2000 to nearly 210,000 in mid-2006, fueled largely by an increase in drug convictions that carry mandatory sentences.

Many of those inmates are mothers who experts say benefit from staying with their children, even if it's behind bars.

The Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, whose nursery program Indiana modeled, has seen 14 of its 128 participants re-offend, an 11 percent recidivism rate compared with the institution's rate among all inmates of about 30 percent, spokeswoman Elizabeth Wright said. New York also has seen a dropoff, said Linda Foglia, spokeswoman for that state's Department of Correctional Services.

Indiana hopes for similar results with its program, funded through a $122,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The Wee Ones Nursery at the 136-year-old Women's Prison is open to up to 10 imprisoned mothers who are the legal guardians of their children, have never been convicted of violent crimes, and have less than 18 months left on their sentences.

The nursery staff includes a pediatrician and a nurse. Inmates who serve as nannies must have nonviolent offenses and reading levels of eighth grade or higher; they also must complete a parenting class.

The mothers receive courses on postpartum care, child development, shaken baby syndrome and other topics.

"We hope that we'll continue to make the family the unit that it should be and strengthen those that are going back out into the community," prison Superintendent Zettie Cotton said.

Some critics contend keeping a baby in prison punishes the child for the mother's offense. When West Virginia's House of Delegates debated creating a nursery program last year, opponents warned it might harm the children involved.

But studies show the children benefit from the contact, said Mary Byrne, a Columbia University nursing professor who is conducting a study of 100 children born at the adjacent Bedford Hills and Taconic Correctional Facilities in Westchester County, N.Y.

Byrne said children separated from their inmate parents run higher risks for emotional and behavioral disorders, school failure and trouble with the law. The babies born to mothers in prisons generally are better off staying there with them, she said.

[From:  Nursery programs allow imprisoned moms, newborns to bond, 2008 ]

This is an interesting point, since later in the same article, prison-nursery outcomes are compared to traditional out-sourced foster care programs where the mother and child are not re-united.

"The outcomes are promising, if the prison nursery programs have the appropriate resources," Byrne said.

Serena Garduza said the Indiana nursery, an extension of the medium-security facility's Family Preservation Program, gives her infant son a better shot at success in life than she had.

Garduza, 31, grew up in foster care after being taken away from her mother, with whom she has lost touch. She stayed in school only until the ninth grade. On probation for theft and receiving stolen property, she was sent to the prison last December after testing positive for cocaine and gave birth to Ramerio, her fifth child, four weeks ago.

Garduza and Ramerio now share a cell with a lone window barred by rounds of razor wire -- a stark contrast to the crib, bright white curtains and stenciled moon and stars on the powder blue cinderblock walls.

It's really fascinating stuff, when you add the various scientific studies that showcase the effects of stress, and maternal separation/deprivation on a child's brain development.  FASCINATING!

Concerns

While I am in favor of programs that help parents parent and keep a relationship with their kids while incarcerated, here are my biggest concerns about the group in this article:

"One of the troubling issues with the foster program, the inspector general's report says, is that the contract does not hold the Mennonite families responsible for the well-being of children under their care.

While there were no proven problems in how the Mennonites have treated the children, the report cites one instance when Taylor was informed of alleged abuse and did not tell DHS, instead investigating it herself and concluding that the accusation was unfounded."

And then it goes on to say the numbers of children involved do not match up. Are there missing kids and if so where are they?

Valid concerns

While there were no proven problems in how the Mennonites have treated the children, the report cites one instance when Taylor was informed of alleged abuse and did not tell DHS, instead investigating it herself and concluding that the accusation was unfounded.

Reminiscent of Catholic Church investigations, and cover-ups, eh? 

Leave them Be!

Why does he government need to be involved in EVERYTHING??!! This is ridiculous! Leave them alone. If these mothers want their children cared for by this mennonite group then why is it anyone else's business? Is DHS involved in every single birth of every baby born in the US deciding whether or not the parents are fit parents or not? Should they monitor every family in th US to see if each and every child is being properly cared for?? What is the difference then? This mennonite group is helping out the mother and their children. The mothers aren't complaining, so leave them be! This is only one more step toward government involvement in every aspect of our lives!

Pound Pup Legacy