Going Upstream to Help Children

Elizabeth GaynesGail T. Smith is being honored as a Champion of Change for her dedication to the well-being of children of incarcerated parents.

I am honored beyond words to be to White House Champion of Change. Nearly 30 years ago, during law school, I attended the National Conference on Women and the Law. It changed my life. Attorney Ellen Barry organized an amazing panel of mothers who spoke about the impact their incarceration had on their children. One mother described her toddler son, who at the time she was arrested, was walking and just beginning to put words together in sentences. When she finally had a visit, after a separation of many months, he had regressed to an earlier stage of infancy. He lost his ability to walk and could not speak a word, but stared straight ahead, drooling. He survived that separation trauma because his mother was able to get into a community program where he could live with her while she served her sentence. After many months of work, the mother got her son back on track. Most families don’t have that opportunity. Most babies born to mothers in jail and prison are separated within a day or two. They can never recover that lost time for mother-infant bonding, which forms the keystone of our human development and our family relationships.

Children need their parents. They also need immediate care when their parents can’t be there. I cannot overstate my admiration and gratitude for the millions of caregivers who step up and take responsibility for children whose parents are incarcerated. Caregivers stretch their scarce resources to provide for the children. Many strive to make sure that the children know their parents still love them. The organization I founded, CLAIM (Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers) has helped thousands of families with short-term and court-ordered guardianships. We represent mothers and guardians in court and we seek out resources for the grandmas, aunties, and others who struggle financially and personally with parents’ absence.

We promote community sentencing instead of prison, child-friendly visiting conditions, and improved policy. We work to create positive systemic change, side by side with allies locally and around the country. Our friend Warnice Robinson spoke out about the need for sentencing programs where moms convicted of nonviolent offenses and their young children can remain together. She was the first to speak publicly about the torture and humiliation of being shackled in full restraints when she was taken from prison to the hospital to give birth. Although she served time for shoplifting, she went through labor with one wrist and one ankle shackled to her hospital bed. Because of her courage in raising this issue, we were able to make Illinois the first state in the U.S. to ban the practice of shackling women in labor. Since then, 18 states and the Federal Marshals have outlawed restraints during labor, and we are moving to protect women and infants from this dangerous practice throughout pregnancy.

When I think about what vulnerable families are facing today due to mass incarceration, I can’t help remembering the familiar parable sometimes attributed to Saul Alinsky, but likely adapted from a story by Irving Zola:

A group of people are standing at a river bank and suddenly hear a baby crying. Shocked, they see an infant struggling in the water. One person immediately dives in to rescue the child. But right away another baby comes floating down the river, and then another! People continue to jump in to save the babies and then see that one person has started to walk away from the group still on shore. Accusingly they shout, "Where are you going? We need everyone available to help save these drowning babies!" The response: "I'm going upstream to stop whoever's throwing babies into the river.”

Mothers and fathers go to prison for reasons that are complex and intertwined: poverty, childhood abuse and intimate violence, addiction when people self-medicate against the continued trauma, and the lack of resources: mental health services, treatment for addiction, quality education, affordable housing, and living-wage employment. The “War on Drugs” and disproportionate arrests of Black and Latino family members wreak destruction on poor families and communities.

We as a nation could scale back incarceration. Instead of prisons, we could focus our resources on restorative justice practices and community resources “upstream”. Until that day, we can continue to try to save the babies who will be carried down our national river of incarceration and family destruction.

Gail T. Smith is the founder of CLAIM (Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers), which provides legal aid, client education and public advocacy to benefit mothers and their families.

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