August 6, 2019

From Jessica Katz, Family Preservation Project Director

Sixteen years ago, I founded the first iteration of the program that is now known as the The Family Preservation Project at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, the only women’s prison in the state of Oregon. The program works with incarcerated mothers, and their children and families, to address the events that led to prison and to mitigate against the impacts of the separation on the family system.

Over the years, I have worked with a number of incredibly resilient women. Almost exclusively, these women have survived childhood traumas including physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect. They have survived intimate partner violence. They have survived conditions of poverty. They have overcome crippling addictions. They have survived kidnapping and trafficking. I have been incredibly humbled by their grit and sheer will to survive.

It Takes a Village

At its best, the Family Preservation Project becomes a village of mothers who, apart from their shared histories, may have little in common. They toil together to become the best versions of themselves—the mothers that their children need and deserve—and raise their children together from behind bars. The program creates an extended family for, and wraps support around, the children it serves; children who share the unique and painful experience of ambiguous loss; a mother who is very much alive, but effectively disappeared. It allows them visits where they have physical contact, share food, and make art together. It allows free phone calls to family and unlimited mail home. The mothers participate in parent-teacher conferences and mental health counseling appointments by phone. They sign their children up for sports, extracurricular activities, and summer camps. The program also supports the family who provides care for the children during their separation from their mother—the unsung heroes who were not resourced or prepared to do the job that was suddenly bestowed upon them.

With love, a deep commitment to breaking the cycle, and the support of the village of found family, I have witnessed an incredible amount of repair and healing. Because of the longevity of the program and through our alumni association, I have had the honor of watching mothers and their children come out the other side of this experience. Unfortunately, I have also seen what can happen in the absence of a comprehensive and intentional intervention like the Family Preservation Project.

The Right to be a Mother

A vast majority of women incarcerated in Oregon are charged with property crimes often related to poverty and survival and directly linked to trauma and addiction. One of the consequences that they may suffer, as a result of being sent to prison, is irrevocably losing the right to ever be a mother again. Child welfare laws demand that if a child has been in care for 15 – 22 months, the state must move to ensure permanency. The highest bar for permanency is adoption. In order to complete an adoption, the state must first terminate the rights of the biological parent.

To be sent to prison, you must be sentenced to over 12 months. Prior to prison, you will have first spent time in a county jail awaiting sentencing and transfer. This means that mothers with an open child welfare case enter prison and immediately begin pushing a boulder up a hill. When you arrive in prison, you will be assessed and assigned a score that predicts your statistical likelihood to re-offend. The score that is generated is based on seven static variables. I have worked with women for whom it is their fourth incarceration whose score is barely on the charts. I have worked with first time, low-level offenders who are assessed as high-risk to re-offend. It seems the science is imperfect.

This score, if low, means that you are ineligible for most programming. If, in order to maintain your right to be a mother, you must complete parenting classes, domestic violence classes, drug and alcohol treatment, mental health counseling and treatment, you are effectively out of luck. To make matters worse, the caseworker with whom you are required to work with closely has a phone that is either not registered with the prison phone system or is answered by automation. On the prison phone, you are not able to push buttons to move through an automated system. The same might be true for staying in contact with your attorney.

Often, when you do consult with your caseworker and attorney as this 15-month mark approaches, you are counseled that voluntarily relinquishing your legal right to motherhood is what is in the best interest of your child. You will be told, alone in a small windowless room, that your child has established a strong and secure attachment with the foster family and that disrupting that out of your own selfish interests would be harmful and cruel. You are further told that if you voluntarily relinquish your rights, you will be granted the opportunity to negotiate a Post-Adoption-Contact-Agreement with the adoptive family through mediation. Often, the agreement allows for you to receive pictures and letters twice a year. You are told that if you decide to take your case to trial and lose, this opportunity will no longer exist.

You may be asked to participate in a “goodbye visit” with your child. You will sit in a small, sterile interview room in the prison with your caseworker, and say goodbye to your child forever. You will then return to your cell or dormitory where 125 women will ask you what is wrong.

If you chose to fight for your rights to motherhood and take your case to trial, you are transported to a county jail. If you take medications, they may or may not go with you. Your personal effects will not go with you. You will appear before a judge in a brightly colored jumpsuit, in shackles, possibly without medications or the ability to groom yourself, and make the case that you are the best resource for your child. You will have a lawyer who, if you are lucky, you may have met. You will go up against the State. You can do the math from here.

Traumatizing Future Generations

Over the last 16 years, I have watched the mothers who I have worked with heal from the many harms that they have endured. The wound that I have never seen truly heal is the one that comes from the ambiguous loss of a mother. Prisons are filled with traumatized children, now adults, who have spent a lifetime wondering why they were not good enough to fight for; stay sober for; stay safe for. Unless we commit to doing something different, the 70,000 kids in Oregon who are currently impacted by their parents incarceration, will be left wondering the same. On and on it goes.

Recently, we have all watched and listened in collective horror, as children have been ripped from their parents at our borders. It is beyond comprehension. It is something that doesn’t and shouldn’t happen in this country.

In Oregon, we have one women’s prison. It houses 1,400 women. Seventy-five percent of those women are mothers. Statistically, every one of those women represent 2.5 children. In one prison, in one state in our country, we have created 1,050 family separation cases. Approximately 2,625 children have been separated from their mothers.

In our attempt to ensure public safety, we have created a public health crisis. A moral crisis. At a minimum, we should be troubled. More accurately, we should be outraged.

In 2015, women and children whose lives had been impacted by the Family Preservation project and their allies helped make Oregon the first State in the country to pass a Bill of Rights for Children of Incarcerated Parents. The passage of the bill led to the creation of an implementation team of the Governors Re-Entry Council. They also collaborated with filmmaker Brian Lindstrom to produce a short documentary film, “Like a Shield” that centers the voices of the mothers and children most directly impacted by family separation resulting from incarceration. Today, that team is working to move those rights to realities. We are working to develop a coordinated and systemic response to a public health crisis, of our own creation, and improving outcomes for children.

However, due to legislative support that failed to pass in the recently ended session, this program is in jeopardy. Read this article for more information.