An initiative through a Vermont nonprofit aims to strengthen the bonds between mothers and their kids, while the moms are serving prison sentences.
Kids-A-Part is a program of Lund, operating inside the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington.
The program facilitates visits between moms in prison and their kids and the children’s caregivers. It also provides phone calls, family play time and craft-making, therapeutic counseling, intense case management and more—all aimed at boosting healthy parenting.
“If all communication were to stop, we’re punishing a child,” observed Jess Kell, the Kids-A-Part parenting coordinator.
Kids-A-Part also offers a reading program, which enables mothers in prison to select books to read into a voice recorder. That recording, along with a hard copy of the story, is mailed to the children so they can have the experience of reading along with their mother’s voice.
The Children’s Literacy Foundation and The Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne support the Kids-A-Part reading program through book donations.
The opportunities under Kids-A-Part are designed to smooth what, for children, is often a traumatic stretch during a parent’s incarceration, Kell said.
“You miss out on a lot,” said program participant Ashley Montague, who is approaching the end of nearly a year in prison for violating her probation by leaving the state after a third DUI. “What I get [from Kids-A-Part] is a connection and bond. I get to maintain that here.”
Roughly three-fourths of the inmates in the facility are mothers, Kell said, and many are engaged in programming during their sentences.
“We have an option,” Kell said. “We can have someone sitting here for 12 months or 18 months or five years doing nothing to prepare themselves to return to the community. Or we can have someone sitting here and really focusing on their sobriety, their education, their parenting skills, their work skills. And I know for me, as a person living in the community, I would like to know that people are gaining some skills.”
Montague said she is grateful for the opportunities Kids-A-Part has given her, and told necn they have helped make her a better mom.
“Coming here has definitely, I guess you could say, saved me,” Montague said.
In order to minimize the chances of the children being bullied because of where their mothers are temporarily housed, necn has not identified Ashley’s kids under an agreement with Lund and the Vermont Department of Corrections.
However, necn did ask Montague's sons to write a letter about what this parenting program has meant to them.
“It’s awesome how you guys make it so we can go and keep me together with my mom,” her older son wrote of Kids-A-Part.
The younger child said about his mother in the letter, “I can’t wait until you get home [sic],” and wrote “xo” many times to signify kisses and hugs.
Montague said the regular visits and other family activities with Kids-A-Part have helped keep her optimistic about the future and engaged in programming behind bars, saying it’s put the “pep in my step.”
“There’s a big stigma around bringing your children into a facility to see an inmate,” Montague said. “I think the kids really see past that, and they just look and see their mom. It makes a connection and a bond you don’t want to lose in your time here.”
Jen Sprafke, the assistant superintendent of the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, said the Vermont Department of Corrections sees Kids-A-Part as an important opportunity for many inmates to work on building positive relationships.
“The national statistic is that kids whose moms are involved in the criminal justice system are 80 percent more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system themselves,” Sprafke said. “So anything we can do to keep them connected in a pro-social way so they don’t enter the system is just doing the moms good, the kids good, and the state good.”
Heather Kvasnak, a regular volunteer for Kids-A-Part inside the correctional facility, said she has been impressed with the incarcerated women she works with and their dedication to maintaining connections with their children and improving their mothering.
“What Lund and Kids-A-Part offers is to be able to continue those skills they already had and maybe build on them,” Kvasnak said.
Montague is set for release next month, with new job skills and a focus on sobriety she’s also worked on while serving her sentence.
“I never want to be back here,” she said.
And when Montague is back living in the community, she believes she’ll have improved relationships with her two special reasons to stay on the straight and narrow.
“I want to be the best mom I can be,” she said, smiling.