June 18, 2017

Keeping incarcerated mothers stay in tuch with their children

Yes Magazine - When Kendra Wright was incarcerated for drug-related offenses at Oregon’s only women’s prison, her then-6-year-old daughter, Selene, was placed in the care of Wright’s grandparents. Prohibited from speaking to Selene, Wright cherished what little contact she had: Wright’s grandmother would call her while Selene was in the same room. “It was the only way I could hear her little voice,” Wright said.

But in 2013, Wright was accepted to the Family Preservation Project, an initiative then run by the Oregon Department of Corrections designed to break inter-generational cycles of incarceration, poverty, and addiction by helping imprisoned mothers maintain relationships with their children. More than 75 percent of incarcerated women in Oregon are mothers, and many of their children are at risk of suffering the same traumas they did.

Since 2010, the FPP has helped dozens of women stay connected with their children through special visitations where families can cuddle, paint, and read together; and by encouraging women to invest in children’s education through virtual parent-teacher conferences. Women also attend daily classes and weekly counseling sessions to help them process their experiences and plan for life outside. “Before these women can even think of themselves as mothers, there’s so much work to be done in restoring their own humanity,” said program director Jessica Katz.

When the DOC decided to cut the program’s funding in 2014, Katz, along with past and present participants, launched a letter-writing campaign to local legislators to save it. They succeeded. Today, it’s operated by the YWCA of Greater Portland with state funding.

Selene, now 11, is a much happier child than the girl Wright, now out of prison, remembers five years ago. Without FPP, Wright believes, Selene would have grown up feeling hurt and abandoned: “I don’t think she would have blossomed into the wonderful, amazing young lady she’s becoming.”

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