When a pregnant mother is imprisoned in North Carolina, her newborn is usually taken away within hours of birth and passed to a family member or foster parent for rearing.

The cost of separating mothers from their newborn and young children through prison is high, experts say. In addition to the more than $20,000 annual incarceration cost per inmate, the children of incarcerated mothers frequently need public assistance, and often suffer immeasurable emotional toll.

Enter Our Children’s Place, an initiative that will offer imprisoned mothers the opportunity to do time while still caring for their young children. The nonprofit program plans to provide a group living option for up to 20 mothers and their children.

Instead of serving their time in Raleigh’s Women’s Prison, mothers will be sentenced to live in Butner in a state-owned building. Each mother can have up to two children live with her.

Modeled after a similar program in California, Our Children’s Place has been in the planning stages for about six years, but organizers are finally seeing their plans moving toward fruition, said Sarah J. Shapard, the group’s Chapel Hill-based project administrator.

Plans call for the building to be renovated and ready for occupancy by early 2008, with an on-site nursery and preschool classrooms.

The board of directors is working closely with numerous state agencies to create a safe, stable environment for the children, the project’s first priority, Shapard said. An important secondary priority is to provide rehabilitation for the mothers, including substance-abuse treatment, health care, parenting and academic education, vocational training, and re-entry services.

“The program was designed with the child’s best interests in mind,” Shapard said. A third priority is to foster quality bonding between mother and child. Child development specialists will mentor the mothers, offering practical skills for life on the outside, Shapard said.

“Most of these mothers have poor mothering skills,” Shapard said.

State Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, a Carrboro Democrat, has been a key supporter.

While working for Prisoner Legal Services as a family lawyer, Kinnaird saw the newborns of incarcerated mothers “scattered to the wind,” she said. The child of an incarcerated parent is six times more likely to be involved in criminal behavior, she said.

The initiative has taken direction from a similar California program called Family Foundation, and Summit House in Raleigh, an alternative sentencing program for mothers and their children. A cost-benefit analysis claims Summit House, which has three facilities, saves taxpayers $1 million annually. Studies have found that just 21 percent of Summit House mothers were reconvicted within a three-year period, compared with a 40 percent reconviction rate among released female felons.

Our Children’s Place will accept mothers with children 6 and younger or who are pregnant, and who have been charged only with nonviolent offenses, with sentences of five years or less.

Getting the program off the ground is the hard part, says board chairwoman Mary Andrews. Shapard is only a part-time administrator, and the board must interface with a varied group of state agencies. Money is tight, and renovation costs could run as high as $4 million.

Still, Andrews says it’s simply the right thing to do.

“Certain things in life are clear, and this is clear,” Andrews says. “We need to find more creative ways to deal with women who make terrible mistakes.”

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