Program that helps mothers in prison rebuild relationships with their kids on state chopping block

The Oregon Department of Corrections has decided to cut the Family Preservation Project from Coffee Creek Correctional Facility. The program helps mothers rebuild relationships with their children and families. (Courtesy of Brian Lindstrom )

The Oregon Department of Corrections has decided to cut the Family Preservation Project from Coffee Creek Correctional Facility. The program helps mothers rebuild relationships with their children and families. (Courtesy of Brian Lindstrom )

By Rebecca Woolington | The Oregonian/OregonLive The Oregonian

February 25, 2015

Nicole Edwards went to prison not knowing her daughter. She wasn’t sure of her favorite color or whether she had any friends.

Edwards expected she and her daughter would only grow further apart while she served three years for theft, selling meth near a school and being a felon in possession of a firearm. It was her second time doing time at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville and she had lost custody of her 4-year-old daughter to the girl’s paternal grandmother.

But Edwards said the extensive treatment she received in prison through the Family Preservation Project helped her grow closer to her daughter.

Without it, Edwards, now 28, believes she and her daughter would still be strangers.

“It’s just amazing that she even wants to be a part of my life because of all the wreckage I dragged her through,” Edwards said.

So when she learned that the family program will end, she was stunned.

Supporters are rallying to save the 5-year-old project. More than 2,800 people signed a petition addressed to legislators and the governor’s office to keep it alive.

Participants receive parenting training and visit with their kids in an open room in prison, allowing them to rebuild their relationships while they read, eat and play together. Normal visiting at the prison is held at tables in a dining hall with guards standing watch.

But state Department of Corrections leaders say it’s not cost-effective.

It’s the most expensive program it funds when measured by the number of inmates served: $300,000 to help about 10 inmates each year. The department’s total budget for two years is $1.4 billion.

Since 2010, the program has worked with 31 mothers and 53 children, the department said. The cost covers supplies and services, two full-time positions and a part-time employee, said Heidi Steward, superintendent at Coffee Creek. The department also was concerned that the program spent money on inmate families, not just inmates, she said.

“I just don’t think it’s the best investment,” Steward said.

The prison plans to phase out the program throughout the spring, keeping one employee and continuing services focused on the mothers but no longer holding visits with the children. The prison has proposed adding a family advocate, who would help provide support services to mothers.

mothering inside still 4.jpgView full sizeThe Family Preservation Program operating at Coffee Creek prison cost the state about $300,000 a year to serve about 10 inmates, according to corrections officials. Because of the cost, the department has decided to cut the program.

Coffee Creek houses more than 1,200 women and is the only prison for women in the state. About 80 percent of inmates say they’re moms. Supporters of the Family Preservation Project say none of the program’s participants have returned to prison since the initiative began.

They point to a consultant’s study done for Portland Community College, which has provided contracted employees to run the project. It found the program to be effective and recommended expanding such services.

Steward said the women already are considered low-risk and unlikely to end up back in prison, so it hasn’t significantly reduced recidivism.

Jessica Katz, the project’s coordinator, said so far 27 participants have been released to the community.

The women spend at least 15 hours a week in the program. They undergo deep evaluation to figure out how they wound up where they did, said Katz, a social worker. They receive help working through their trauma and addiction, and receive education and skill-building resources, she said.

“They are not just an inmate, a person who has made terrible mistakes,” she said. “They are a mother. They have something to return to. That means a lot.”

State Sen. Chip Shields, D-Portland, said the program has shown that it can reduce risk factors for children with an imprisoned mother. He has encouraged supporters to write letters to their state legislators and attend the Corrections Department budget hearing, scheduled for March 19, to provide public testimony and show support. He said he plans to talk with the Corrections and Human Services departments to try to restore some funding.

“I do feel confident that we will get this issue resolved before the Department of Corrections budget goes through,” Shields said this week.

Among the program’s other supporters is Brian Lindstrom, a Portland filmmaker who spent months with the participants at Coffee Creek and did a documentary, “Mothering Inside.” The film screened last week at Cinema 21 in Northwest Portland and will show again at Hollywood Theatre at 7:15 p.m. Thursday.

Katrina Going, 29, is one of the inmates featured in the film. She served about six years at the prison for robbery and selling meth and participated in the program when her daughter was 9 and her son was 5. She was able to maintain a close relationship with her brother, who added a room to his Corvallis home for her and had it waiting when she was released two weeks ago. She has custody of her children and wants to start school.

“That would have never happened without the program,” she said.

Edwards, the other former participant, drove to Portland from Albany to catch last week’s screening. She brought her husband and their new baby girl.

“That program literally means the world to me,” said Edwards, who participated for 14 months. She got out of prison in January 2014.

During those months, Edwards had conferences with her older daughter’s teacher. During visits, they were able to cuddle, paint and tend to the garden in the prison yard.

Until then, Edwards said she had known only a life of drug dealing and meth addiction. She had given up a son for adoption.

Today, she spends every other weekend with her older daughter, now 8. The program taught her how to communicate and showed her how to be a parent. She has gotten to know her second-grader, including her favorite color: purple.

— Rebecca Woolington

503-294-4049; @rwoolington