CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Crime has traditionally attracted a great deal of community attention.
While this attention usually manifests itself in arguments about the fairness of the justice system or the financial burden on taxpayers, little attention has gone toward the smallest victims of crime: prisoners’ children.
Separated from their parents, these children often are at risk for behavioral problems and stunted emotional development. Children of incarcerated parents are six times more likely to enter into the criminal justice system themselves, says North Carolina Sen. Ellie Kinnaird.
With the creation of Our Children’s Place, a facility that will serve as a home for incarcerated women and their preschool-aged children, the issue is beginning to attract attention.
“When mothers are incarcerated, people just assume that someone swoops in and takes care of their children,” says Melissa Radcliff, executive director of Our Children’s Place. “In many cases, we don’t even know where those children end up.”
Started in 2004, the nonprofit is renovating a building in Butner, N.C., where it plans to offer mothers hands-on training in parenting and job skills. Our Children’s Place, which aims to open the new facility in early 2010, is now located in the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Currently state prisons in North Carolina are home to nearly 3,000 women. More than seven in 10 of these women are mothers.
Initially, Our Children’s Place aims to give 10 of these women, as well as up to 20 children, a safe home where they can learn to live outside the legal system successfully. Eventually the organization hopes to serve up to 20 women and 40 children.
“We know these women are not staying with us forever,” Radcliff says. “We’re looking at what women need to take care of their children long-term.”
Maintaining a home-like environment for children and a correctional facility for women simultaneously will be a “balancing act,” Radcliff says.
“We’re interested in creating a warm, loving family environment,” she says, “but there are certainly rules about safety and security.”
Our Children’s Place will accept only women who are pregnant or who have children preschool-aged or younger. The women must be serving sentences of five years or less for nonviolent offenses.
Though Our Children’s Place is still working to determine an operational budget, the state has allocated $3.5 million for renovations to its new building. The organization currently has 13 board members and four staff members.
To raise funds and awareness, Our Children’s Place launched the HATS (Handcrafted and Totally Special) campaign, which offers hats, baby blankets and scarves knitted by women inmates.
The next event, Hats Off to the Kids, will be held at the Siena Hotel in Chapel Hill Nov. 2.
The hats serve to remind incarcerated women that they have something to offer society. At the same time, they serve as a powerful reminder to the public.
“These hats were made by women who aren’t with their children,” Radcliff says.
The idea for Our Children’s Place was born over a decade ago when state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, then a civil attorney, was working on a research project on incarcerated women. She was shocked to find that women who are pregnant while incarcerated have their children taken away from them almost immediately after birth.
Driven to combat what she saw as a “family-destroying system,” Kinnaird found several successful programs in the U.S. that keep incarcerated mothers and their children together.
Inspired by nonprofits such as the California-based Family Foundation, Kinnaird and others embarked on creating a similar facility in North Carolina.
Our Children’s Place seeks to take the “revolving door” off prisons by breaking the intergenerational cycle of crime, says Kinnaird.
“We make sure these are whole, healthy families functioning in society,” she says.
State legislators and the public, by and large, have reacted warmly to the idea of Our Children’s Place, she says.
“You have a situation where you can help the community, the family and taxpayers,” she says. “You can’t ask for anything more than that.”