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Head Start program helps moms in prison bond with babies

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The tableau is typical: a new mother with a wide smile, her eyes shining, embracing her baby while she gently sways in a tall-backed rocking chair.

This scene, however, is not a commonplace one: It is just outside a prison, and the mother, Sherri, is an inmate serving a 24-month sentence at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility for a home burglary in Brookings.

When she went to prison, she was 8 months pregnant. Now, instead of being in her back yard or on a play date, she’s treasuring the few hours a week she has to share with her 8-week-old newborn son, Zayden.

The rest of the time, Zayden lives with Sherri’s 61-year-old grandmother in Salem.

Coffee Creek is a minimum and medium-security women’s prison in Wilsonville, the only women’s prison in Oregon.

Outside the prison is the Coffee Creek Child Development Center, a special partnership between the Oregon Department of Corrections and Community Action’s Head Start, based in Washington County.

The Coffee Creek Early Head Start program is funded to serve eight children at a time. To participate, an inmate must be housed in the minimum security section and have permission to leave the prison and cross the open parking lot to the center.

In addition, the inmate’s sentence must be for less than 4 years; the child must be younger than 3 and live within one hour of Coffee Creek; and an outside caregiver must be available and willing to take care of the inmate’s child and transport the child to and from the center.

The center consists primarily of a warm, inviting living room, a kitchen, and a well-supplied classroom, plus an outdoor play area and a garden that moms and children can tend. The Early Head Start program provides moms with chances to be with their children two mornings a week, from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

The staff has the satisfaction of knowing these parents have the skills to make life choices that will benefit their children for decades to come. The reward for Oregon is reducing the chance mothers will end up back in prison, and increasing the likelihood a child will grow up to be a productive citizen.

“I get to watch him grow; it helps me not be so depressed, helps us bond, and helps me know my son and my son know me, which will make a big difference when I get out,” Sherri said.

The Early Head Start teacher, Carmen Slothower, provides playtime, gives opportunities for diapering and bathing, focuses on teaching good nutrition and educational practices and gives the inmate a chance to learn how to deal with the challenges of parenting. It’s all done in the hope those lessons will be followed after the inmate is released.

Program oversight is provided by Kathy Zane, the Early Head Start Program Supervisor at Community Action.

“The idea is to provide women with different experiences and skills to help them reach beyond their own parenting and backgrounds to strengthen the bond with their child,” said Zane. “Without learning new skills, it’s likely that mothers could continue a cycle of poverty, crime, domestic violence or drug abuse, and their child may repeat the process.”

Sherri is convinced the Early Head Start program is making her a better person.

“It keeps me in line, makes me want to succeed,” she said. “It’s a blessing that the prison will do all this for mothers.”

Leslea Smith is an attorney and regional director of the Hillsboro Regional Office of Oregon Law Center. She lives in Hillsboro.