WEST COLUMBIA, W.Va. — When Craig Roberts first heard about starting a program designed to keep non-violent pregnant female inmates with their babies, he admits he was skeptical.
However, after the associate warden of programs at the Lakin Correctional Center saw the bond the first mother in the program had with her baby, everything changed.
“You just got to see the development of the child, the bonding with the child. To see that in this environment was incredible,” Roberts said.
The idea for Keeping Infant Development Successful, or KIDS, began in 2007. Lori Nohe, warden at the maximum security prison for women, explained the state mandated the facility to have a program for mothers and children. However, since the program doesn’t use state funds and since there were no funds immediately available, officials weren’t sure about the future.
Plus, much of the community was very much against it, Roberts said. In the beginning, even Roberts said he was against it, saying he had the same outlook as the general public.
“They thought it was babies behind bars and why would you want to do something like that? It was not an easy thing for people to buy into,” Roberts said.
Nohe said the funding question was resolved when a Lakin counselor went to pick up her children at her day care. The counselor talked to a person at the day care about the program and she got the contact information for Early Head Start. Officials later met with Early Head Start’s regional director and the program was born.
Nohe said a lot of the clothes come from donations, and there are some monetary donations, but 90 percent of funding comes from Early Head Start. Costs for the infants’ food are provided by Women Infant and Children services, and all of the babys’ medical costs are covered through Medicaid.
“Everything you see in the unit, the learning tools, toys, a majority of the furniture — Early Head Start provided for all of that,” Nohe said. “They also provide on a daily basis, diapers, formula, all the things you need for an infant.”
Roberts and Nohe said they are very proud of the program and consider it a success. In the last six years, 14 have completed the program. None of the 14 have come back through the system.
Roberts said two of the first women to complete the program have called him, saying they graduated college and are now fully employed.
“They call and tell us how they’re doing, how life has changed. They send pictures of the babies, send out letters and Christmas cards,” he said. “The fact that not one has come back is amazing.”
Right now, only one woman is in the program and she moved into the mobile home with her baby Tuesday. The home can hold up to five mothers and is capable of handling more than five babies, just in case the mothers have twins.
Women can enter the unit, a four-bedroom mobile home fenced in and away from the main facility, while they’re still pregnant.
“It’s beneficial to get them in the early stages of pregnancy so Early Head Start can work with them in what to expect in pregnancy, how to raise a child,” Nohe said.
There are three homes as part of the unit, with a playground attached in a special fenced-in area. Inside the house is an area for Early Head Start programs, a common area filled with bouncy chairs and toys, and four bedrooms, each with a rocking chair beside the crib. Cameras are located in the common areas and directly above each baby’s crib, but only where the baby is in view.
Of course, not just anyone can participate in the program. Nohe said there are several pregnant inmates in Lakin, but few apply.
“You have to put in work, have to put in the time, have to really want it,” Nohe said. “Unfortunately, that’s why we don’t have as many as you would think we would have. We would like to have the place full.”
The process starts with the application and there are several qualifications. Women must have a non-violent charge and no charges relating to children. Officials also check each woman’s CPS background to make sure there are no cases against her. Roberts said most of the women in the KIDS unit have forgery and uttering charges and certain types of drug offenses.
If women are addicted to drugs when they enter the facility, however, they are sent to a different unit and not eligible to get into the KIDS unit. Roberts explained Lakin doesn’t have the type of facility capable of taking care of a baby born addicted to drugs.
Women also must provide an emergency contact, who agrees to get the child within 24 hours of a call. The form also asks for a father’s name to see if it’s OK for the baby to stay with the mother, but if no father is around, then it’s solely the inmate’s decision.
The father can make arrangements at any time to pick up the baby. However, Nohe said the father must return the baby within three days, and there are no overnight visits.
Since the program is set up for 18 months, which begins after the woman has her baby, the mother has to be released by that time.
“The goal is to have them leave together,” Roberts said.
Once women clear the application stage, they come in for an interview.
“If it becomes obvious to us that they don’t have the mindset of bonding with the child and they just want to live in the home instead of a cell and couldn’t really care less, then that inmate is denied,” Roberts said.
And some may not stay in the program, ending up back in their cells if they violate a rule.
“We had one mother actually bring the child out and put the child on the sidewalk in front of the officer,” Roberts said. “We hadn’t even talked to her yet. She heard she would get a write-up and brought the child out and set on the sidewalk and said call CPS to come and get her and she went back in the unit. You have one extreme where they do great and then you have that example.”
Nohe said the staff is hit hard when a mother is taken out of the KIDS unit because staff want to see mothers succeed in the program. She also said staff members get attached to the babies.
“My staff, as well as Craig, bonds with those children, too,” Nohe said, explaining that if a mother can’t complete the program, the children are moved to an outside source, such as family members or with Child Protective Services.
“I know one went to CPS. We hate to see that happen. We needed counselors to counsel the counselors because they were so upset to see that child leave. It does affect the staff. Early Head Start staff were upset, visibly upset. The sad part is, the staff and Early Head Start was more upset than the mothers.”
For the women who stay in the unit, Roberts said the biggest thing she’s noticed is how proud the mothers are of their babies. Roberts said mothers can’t wait to show them off.
“When you go in, I’ve never walked in and saw a child lying on the floor or in a bouncy chair when the mother isn’t right there,” he said. “Most of the time, they have them in their arms or are lying in the floor playing with them. There is always that interaction going on.”
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