DETROIT (AP) — It was the Christmas season of 1999, and Shirley Cochran and her husband were looking for one — just one — family to help.
Now, 11 years later, that simple act of kindness has blossomed into a ministry and nonprofit organization called Motherly Intercession, which has provided across-the-board support and help for more than 3,000 children with incarcerated parents, particularly mothers.
Cochran and other professionals point to grim statistics that show children of incarcerated parents becoming depressed and having problems in school, of families and siblings split apart and shuffled off to live with relatives or in foster care, and often, winding up in trouble themselves.
She and others have seen this dead-end cycle played out over and over, and the results hurt not only these families, but society as a whole.
"It's not just a personal problem of those incarcerated," Cochran said. "It's a community problem, and we can't sweep it under the carpet. You can't pretend it's not there. You have to step up to the plate and give it your best. And that's what we do here at Motherly Intercession."
Cochran, 61, the executive director of Motherly Intercession, graduated from Mott Community College with a business degree and attended the University of Michigan-Flint with an eye toward entering the education field. But she ended up working several salaried positions in the accounting and employment departments at General Motors before retiring in 2001 after 27 years there. Motherly Intercession was two years old at the time.
But rewind to 1999. Cochran decided to visit the Genesee County Jail, looking for that one family to help, and reasoned she could find an incarcerated mother there who would not be home with her children on Christmas. After talking to Sheriff Robert Pickell about her plan, and later the women incarcerated there, Cochran developed an application for a potential candidate.
A week later, she discovered 23 moms filled out the application, and had a total of 58 children.
"This was a personal thing my husband and I did, but our checkbook couldn't handle this," Cochran said. "And we couldn't decide who to help."
So they decided to help them all.
She enlisted family and friends, pooled resources, obtained donations from stores and other places, and scheduled a fund-raising gospel musical. They raised $300, and were able to provide toys for all 58 children. And then they did it all over again the following Christmas.
Cochran said she and her volunteer staff also developed relationships with those jailed mothers, and looked around for social agencies where they could refer these women for help.
"But we found there was no place serving this population," she said.
While there are more today, at the time Motherly Intercession was the first, and only, agency exclusively serving these people. Over the years, Cochran determined the incarcerated mothers had multiple needs, but the most important, to her, were the unmet needs of the children of incarcerated mothers, and Motherly Intercession focused on helping the children, which ultimately also helped the mothers.
Before long, Motherly Intercession began adding programs. The first was B-FAD, Bonding From a Distance, which increased the time children could visit a mother in jail, and also gave them the ability to hug and kiss their mothers.
"Sometimes, these children have not seen their mothers since they were arrested," Cochran said.
Through the years, Motherly Intercession has added other programs geared toward helping those at-risk children, and the caregivers who fill in while Mom is in jail. One is a school readiness program for children three to five years old. Another provides a support group for caregivers, parents and children. A local judge, David Newblatt, who is in the Family Division of the Genesee County Circuit Court, heads a program that teaches the law to children — how it works, and how choices, both good and bad, will impact the kids and the community.
Cochran and her staff also hold sessions at their office and field trips exposing the children to arts, culture and education. And the children are fed a nutritional meal whenever they attend programs at Motherly Intercession's office. Reading, math, computer and homework assistance session are others available to the kids.
There's also a program where mothers and children read books together, to aid in bonding, and a program to mentor the mothers after their release from jail.
"One of our grant people said Motherly Intercession started from a sprout, and has grown into a tree of services," Cochran said.
But there are bumps in this story. Cochran often talks about Motherly Intercession to anyone and everyone, but notices that people's demeanor changes once they discover she is associated with jailed mothers. It's a guilt by association that is totally misinterpreted, Cochran said.
"That's what the family, caregivers, and children go through too," she said. "But we're all innocent. The victim's family is innocent, as are these children."
"But once you are associated with an incarcerated person, a lot of people are punished. And the children are punished even more so." Cochran said Motherly Intercession does not condone actions that break laws, but believes the sins of a parent should not be automatically passed on to the children.
Cochran said those children have usually lost their primary caregiver, and become open to harassment and teasing at school. Siblings may be split apart, and they may even end up in foster care. And the families of the children's parents may not get along either. This all can and does lead to a myriad of problems for these children.
In mid-November, Motherly Intercession held its annual fund-raising dinner and awards banquet, and the featured speaker was Frank Vandervort, a clinical assistant professor of law who also oversees the child advocacy law clinic at the University of Michigan Law School.
He is active in the fields of child protection, and fully supports the works of Motherly Intercession. During his speech, Vandervort spoke of the large number of children in America with an incarcerated parent, and the impact that has on the youngsters.
"Those children are at very high risk for a number of negative social outcomes, which could lead to delinquency and, later in life, criminality," Vandervort said. "This program seeks to intercede and stop that, and break that cycle so that children don't repeat the mistakes of their parents."
He said when parents go to jail, the child's life thrown into disarray, and the results are harmful to our communities.
"Motherly Intercession is a very successful program, and one that should be replicated in other communities," Vandervort said.
He also spoke of one of his own cases involving a 15-year-old boy in Genesee County who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for hurting people. Vandervort said the boys parents were both sent to prison, and the boy bounced between relatives, including an abusive uncle who beat the boy so hard he left scars on his back.
"But this boy was more scarred emotionally," Vandervort said. "He had a hole in his middle...and it was filled with rage."
Cochran said she works daily to address all those problems encountered by children of incarcerated parents. Motherly Intercession is a nonprofit agency, and relies on grants, donations and volunteers. She said the yearly budget is about $300,000, and because of the economy, it keeps getting more difficult to keep all the programs going.
"Our donations are down," she said. "Grant money is drying up, and it's such a competitive business anyway."
She recently learned that another grant will dry up later this year.
"I need to replace those dollars somehow. But where do you go?"
Cochran said this was the first year she herself took a salary. Name other non-profits where the executive director forgoes a salary for a decade. On top of that, Cochran said she and many staff and volunteers routinely buy items for the program out of their own pockets.
She also believes that people will survive one way or another, through legal or illegal means. Which means the cycle of a child following a parent into the legal system will go on.
But still, she says Motherly Intercession is not about her. It's about the kids.
"We try to give them opportunities they never would have had otherwise," Cochran said.
There are success stories. Cochran personally mentored a young girl who now carries a 4.0 average in high school and hopes to become an attorney so she can advocate for children.
"She has such a solid grasp on life now, and has overcome so many obstacles," Cochran said. "And we have learned a lot from her."
Another child Cochran met years ago visiting her mother in jail is now successful in the media, and brings presents for "Shirley's kids" at Christmas.
Cochran said some children keep in touch with her over the years, and some volunteers come for school or college projects and stay on for years. Giving and helping can be contagious, Cochran said.
"It's the kind of thing that just slides into your heart," she said. "These kids are so pure, honest and genuine."
In her office, Cochran displays drawings the kids have given her, and one boy showed his joy and approval by saying "You rock, Mrs. Cochran!"
"And I get those hugs. That's part of the payment."
"I love these kids," she said. "And they love in return."
Information from: Detroit Legal News, http://www.legalnews.com/detroitTags: