Children with incarcerated mothers run a greater risk of dropping out of school, running away from home, abusing substances, getting pregnant and going to prison, according to a representative of a Tulsa-based foundation that funds a diversion program for women.
“Female incarceration has devastating and lasting impact on children,” Amy Santee, senior program officer for George Kaiser Family Foundation, told a conference of state attorneys general meeting in Oklahoma City.
Oklahoma's rate of female incarceration is close to twice the national average and has led the country for 16 of the past 17 years.
Today, 2,489 women are incarcerated in Oklahoma, and those women have an estimated 4,500 children, Santee said.
Despite the number of incarcerated females in Oklahoma, Santee said the topic often gets overlooked by policymakers because females make up only a fraction of the overall budget and overall prison population.
“But when you consider the devastating impact that female incarceration has on thousands of children, it's a problem we can no longer ignore,” she said.
In 2009, the foundation partnered with Family and Children services in Tulsa to develop Women in Recovery, an alternative to incarceration designed to strengthen and preserve families through self-sufficiency planning that includes employment, education and housing.
The program, for high-risk women facing lengthy terms of incarceration, places a strong emphasis on the family relationship, Santee said. Participants receive parenting education, case management and necessary services for their children.
The program offers strict supervision and high degrees of accountability, along with strong clinical and treatment services, Santee said.
Participants receive an average of 300 hours of clinical treatment and 280 hours of group education over a 12- to 18-month period.
“We're strengthening the mother and her children,” she said.
Of the program's 245 participants since 2009, 94 have graduated, a 66 percent rate, said Santee, who said she has seen significant drops in substance abuse and improved mental health.
“Each of these program components alone will not improve recidivism if the participant does not change her thinking and her behavior,” Santee said “Changing behavior is not an easy task. It does not happen overnight.