LA seeks to bring children closer to mothers behind bars

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Friends Outside, Los Angeles

Los Angeles County has launched a new program to make it easier for kids to visit their incarcerated mothers. Its intended to help mothers and children as incarceration rates rise.

Los Angeles County's launched a new program to make it easier for kids to visit their incarcerated mothers. It's intended to help mothers and children as incarceration rates rise.

The program is aimed at people like Maria Santos Angulo. For years, she lived a life of drugs and crime. Finally, California put her behind bars for assault and battery.

"It dug a bigger hole for me not to know where my children were at," Angulo said. "I felt like it just broke me."

Angulo's daughter, Arlene Tanner, recalls an equally traumatic experience. Tanner was three years old when police took her mother away. She ended up in foster care.

"Not knowing who these people who were taking care of me. There was no love, I was lacking warmth," Tanner said. If only she'd been able to visit her mother behind bars, Tanner said, "I think a lot of the anxiety and fear would have been eliminated."

Angulo and Tanner stand in the lobby of the Los Angeles County Century Regional Detention Center in Lynwood. They're here to help introduce the Incarcerated Parents Project.

Through the program, social workers with the Department of Children and Family Services and the nonprofit Friends Outside facilitate visits between mothers and children. They hope to eventually extend the program to fathers.

"We do our due diligence," said Mary Weaver, who heads Friends Outside in Los Angeles.

"We are not going to set up visits for an inappropriate person -- meaning somebody who was molesting their children or something like that," she said.

Weaver's group has produced a video that prepares children as young as six years old for walking into a jail. The video shows them the inside of the jail and advises them of security measures.

A warm woman's voice says "Your mother is safe. Like you, your mother eats three meals a day. She does different things during the day, like studying, watching TV or talking with other inmates."

The video also explains to kids that their mother will be speaking to them by telephone from behind a glass wall -- a restriction some social workers want relaxed.

As states lock up more people for longer sentences, Weaver says the number of kids with an incarcerated parent jumped 82 percent in the last couple of decades. Another parent, grandparents or foster parents often end up taking care of the child.

Weaver says many of them can't afford the trip to sometimes distant jails -- or they believe the locked-up parent is a bad influence.

"They don't really realize that the moms who are in here are the parents that are loved by these kids," said Alma Gold of the Department of Children and Family Services.

"Even though they have committed a crime, the kids still want to see their moms. They want to know that they're OK, that they are doing well," she said.

As part of the Incarcerated Parents Project, The L.A. County Sheriff's Department has arranged for children to visit their mothers on weekdays, when the facility's less crowded, and has provided time for inmates to meet with social workers.

"In the beginning, we had raised eyebrows," said Karne Dalton of the Sheriff's Offender Services Bureau. "We had comments that were made -- 'Why are we doing this? They are inmates.'"

Dalton said many deputies now see the program calming and helping the inmates they guard.

"For the women, what happens, is they get a glimmer of hope and they start to talk about what's happening in these visits and they start to feel better about themselves," she said.

Maria Santos Angulo, who's 60 years old, believes she would have changed her life of crime sooner if she could have seen her children.

"Oh my goodness. It would have had a huge impact on my life," she said. "Because I didn't know everything about my children -- what was going on -- it took me a long time to pull myself together."

Now, Angulo and her daughter work together helping families reunite after incarceration.

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