ALFRED -- How do you maintain a relationship with your children if you're incarcerated? It's a matter few people consider, but for many women at the Southern Maine Re-entry Center (SMRC) in Alfred, that daunting question is a reality. Support arrived this summer in the form of G.E.A.R. Parent Network's new Parenting and Caregiving After Prison series, and as one woman put it, "I now know I can make it through this [experience] and still be a mom."
G.E.A.R. Parent Network, a program of Crisis & Counseling Centers (C&C), provides resources, support and workshops for parents of children with emotional and behavioral health needs statewide. Laurie Cavanaugh, G.E.A.R. regional certified parent support provider for York, Cumberland, Androscoggin and Oxford counties, had previously conducted one-time support groups for incarcerated mothers at SMRC. This year, Cavanaugh focused on developing an intensive six-week workshop series that would foster resiliency through communications, self-compassion and esteem building.
Located at the York County Jail, SMRC provides incarcerated women from jails across the state with the skills and experience necessary to live as positive citizens after they re-enter the community. The facility uses gender-responsive principles in its everyday operations and can accommodate up to 64 women at a time.
While SMRC provides parenting classes to prepare mothers for their release back into society, incarcerated mothers lacked resources about how to parent from prison. Cavanaugh developed the series because mothers were asking for tools to stay connected with their families and their child's school while incarcerated.
During six two-hour workshops, which the same 10 to 12 women attended weekly, attendees discussed the challenges of parenting from prison and strategies for success. Topics included self-care, grief, confidence and resiliency.
Many women felt guilty that they were in prison, according to Cavanaugh, yet a variety of factors may have contributed to their incarceration. Cavanaugh asked group members to complete the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) questionnaire, which measures their own exposure to child abuse or neglect. "They realized that ending up incarcerated is not all their fault. Some factors were beyond their control, and because of that they are also a victim," she said.
For most women in the series, reuniting with their children was the primary concern. According to participant feedback, the series' curriculum was nothing short of inspiring.
"I now feel like I'm a good mother and worthy of my children," one woman wrote. "I believe that [this workshop] made us all feel normal, that we have not lost our children's love, and that we will be OK."
Using a variety of outside resources, Cavanaugh loosely designed the curriculum and adjusted it throughout the series to fit the women's shifting interests and needs. "First and foremost, G.E.A.R. wanted to deliver a product that these women wanted," she said. "I was there to help facilitate the group, but I made it clear that we were all going to learn from each other."
In preparation for their release back into society, the women worked together to compile a statewide resource guide with helpful contact information. Cavanaugh also supplied a list of Maine employers that will hire former inmates, which offers hope to these women as they begin their new lives.
"I now know I am not alone," one participant wrote. "Hearing what other people go through helps me to know how to handle things I didn't before."
The first class of Parenting and Caregiving After Prison participants graduated on Aug. 29, and some women have since been released and reunited with their families. Anticipating the challenges these women would face upon release, Cavanaugh provided them with G.E.A.R.'s parenting resources and toll-free support number. She also offered details regarding the statewide Maine Mothers Network for pregnant and parenting women using substances who have children up to 5 years old, and C&C's Generations counseling program for youths.
Leading this workshop series has been especially rewarding for Cavanaugh, who has played an integral role in helping these women learn to love themselves again. "They had the qualities they needed to parent and cope when they get out of jail, but they just didn't know it. Seeing them realize that they had what it takes to make a successful life was very awe-inspiring for me."
Although the initial series of Parenting and Caregiving After Prison has ended, other women at SMRC have asked for the series' return. G.E.A.R. Parent Network would like to continue the successful program, but time and funding are current limitations. G.E.A.R. Parent Network is also actively researching ways to extend the program to include a separate course for incarcerated fathers in the future.
"You never realize how strong you are until strong is the only option you have," one graduate wrote of her experience with the series. "I have strengthened my support, and would 110 percent recommend this class to any woman."
G.E.A.R. Parent Network empowers parents and caregivers of children with emotional and behavioral health needs to effect life decisions based on their family's individual strengths and needs. Contact G.E.A.R. Parent Network for guidance at 1.800.264.9224, or visit gearparentnetwork.org.
Public Relations and Marketing Coordinator
Crisis & Counseling Centers
10 Caldwell Road
Augusta, ME 04330