A novel prison program for pregnant women and their babies
Victoria Lopez was in jail in southern Minnesota, waiting to get sent to prison on drug charges, when she went into labor. Her twin girls were delivered soon after by emergency C-section. When they got taken to the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU, at another hospital, Lopez wasn't allowed to go.
"So I had to say goodbye to my daughters and I didn't know when I'd see them again," she said. "I sat there in that room alone. Well, not alone. I had the guards with me."
She was in that room when she got a call from the parenting coordinator at the prison. "Due to your situation with the twins needing NICU and extra care," Lopez remembered the woman telling her, "we'd like to put you in this program."
A healthy start
Minnesota lawmakers passed the Healthy Start Act in 2021. It is believed the state is the first to allow some mothers to live outside of prison with their new babies. A handful of other states, including Indiana and Washington, have nurseries that let incarcerated mothers keep their babies with them inside prison. In most places, a woman who gives birth in jail or prison is separated from her baby within hours or days.
The Department of Corrections oversees Minnesota's program. Deputy Commissioner Safia Khan said the idea was to find ways to "prevent that separation from happening at a very critical time for the development of that newborn baby and to allow for that mother-child bond."
That was certainly the case for Lopez, whose Facebook page is now filled with pictures and videos of her with the twins – from the time they were tiny infants to more recent pictures of them crawling around, along with pictures of their two-year-old brother.
All pregnant and recently postpartum women who come into Minnesota's prison system are considered eligible for the Healthy Start program. In the last two years, 38 women have been screened for the program, although only 12 have been accepted. Women can be rejected if their sentences are too long or if their parental rights have been terminated, among other reasons.
The Department of Corrections is trying to make the program more accessible so more parents can participate.
The bigger question for many is why these women are getting caught up in the criminal legal system in the first place.
A complicated picture
"For me, the most important and critical piece of this puzzle is just how complicated these families and circumstances are," said Rebecca Shlafer, a professor at the University of Minnesota. Her work focuses on families and incarceration and she is currently evaluating the prison's pregnancy program for the Department of Corrections.
"We need to move upstream to earlier interventions and earlier investments in maternal and child health as a crime prevention strategy," she said, "so that we are not at the end of a line here saying, how do we solve all of these really complex social problems with one intervention called the Healthy Start Act?"
For Lopez, who started substance use treatment and enrolled in community college after she was arrested, the Healthy Start program enabled her to bond with her babies.
But it wasn't enough to stop the separation she had been dreading from happening.
The judge sentenced her to 88 months in prison. Just days after her twins' one-year birthday, Lopez began her sentence. She's currently appealing the decision.
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