Moms with felonies thrive with alternative to prison in N.Y.
NEW YORK — Rosalia Silva came to New York from Mexico with the promise of a good job, her small child in tow. Instead, she was forced into prostitution, trapped in a life of abuse and misery, and she saw no way out. Deeply depressed, she tried to hurt herself and her little boy.
Silva was arrested on assault charges and jailed, and later institutionalized while her son, Francisco, lived with foster parents for nearly five years. But then Silva was accepted into Drew House, a program for mothers that allows them to live with their children in a private apartment instead of prison while they serve out court mandates.
“Here we have our own place, said Silva, 36. “It's a place we can call home, a place we feel safe. It's a place where we can get to know each other again.” It's apparently the only program like it in the country — and has been lauded as a successful, more supportive and cheaper alternative to prison. But space is running out at the house, and prosecutors and program leaders say the effort needs funding in order to grow.
Silva and four other mothers live in the unmarked apartment building in Brooklyn, all sent there for felony offenses. Some involve drugs, others weapons and still others more violent crime. Eligible women are flagged by Brooklyn prosecutors and defense attorneys. In order to live there, women must be homeless, have minor children and have pleaded guilty to a felony. The charges are dropped if they complete the court-ordered requirements, but if they break the law or don't follow through, they get the maximum sentence.
“They want us to succeed,” Silva said of the program leaders. “They help us to stay on the path.” The women are largely independent except for a curfew and sign-in requirements. Mothers attend parenting classes, job training and therapy. Their children go to school and receive medical care and tutoring — and are given a sense of stability and safety.
The four-story maroon building was bustling on a recent school day. A handful of small children in yellow and blue uniforms tumbled into the ground floor office, plopped down backpacks and said hello to the house manager.
The kids raced to the backyard to play on the swing set near a garden of herbs and vegetables, tossing a basketball, and trying to be gentle with a small tabby cat that's taken up residence. Some of the moms joked nearby.
Rita Zimmer, the founder of Housing Plus Solutions, the nonprofit that runs the program, said it costs $34,000 annually to house a woman and her children at Drew House. It costs nearly four times as much to incarcerate a woman and put her children in foster care.
Some prisons allow women to keep their infants with them, and some drug treatment programs allow children, but no other program allows women arrested on other felonies to live with their children instead of prison.
The idea came from prosecutors working with Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes and took nearly a decade to get off the ground, until Zimmer came on board. The house opened in 2008 and was named for Hynes' mother, a victim of domestic violence.
“There's just a lot more to public safety than locking people up,” Hynes said.
A study completed by Columbia University in 2011 after a year of observation found residents were thriving. All but one of the seven initial residents completed court mandates, have not been re-arrested and found stable homes. Their children remained in school. But women who are incarcerated are more often homeless and have higher rates of mental illness and substance abuse than women who get alternative punishment outside prison, according to the study. Their children are more likely to fail academically, suffer mental health problems and wind up in the criminal justice system themselves.
Researchers were impressed, said Mary Byrne, who led the study. Their first recommendation was to replicate the model nationwide, and find more buildings in New York City to serve more families, but that's been impossible so far.
Part of the problem is that with an average stay of about a year, space rarely opens up. And women can't be forced to leave their apartments when their mandate ends.
under the terms of the grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, though most do leave for other housing.
But now, of the five women there, two are done and a third, Olgita Blackwood, is about to finish, and they haven't left. One has stayed more than a year late because of immigration issues. Blackwood said she can't afford her own place.
The 24-year-old was arrested on a weapons charge when officers investigating her relative learned his loaded gun was hidden in her room. She was living with her mother and boyfriend at the time, and her youngest was barely a week old.
“When I got arrested I was crying every night,” she said. “I was so worried about my kids, they depend on me, they asked for me every day. I can't be apart from them.” She lives in a small two-bedroom on the first floor with her three kids, now 8, 7 and almost 2. Blackwood is studying for her GED and hopes to go to college.
“It makes me feel independent. Like I can make decisions on my own, raise my kids,” she said. “I can't imagine it any other way now.” Ideally, program founders say, there would also be funding for some type of transitional help for these women, in addition to more buildings to house more families. Zimmer met this week with district attorney's office staff to hunt for extra cash, but no solutions have been found.
Silva, too, said she would never be able to afford the apartment alone.
Her second-floor apartment is tidy and bright, and she has added small flourishes to make it her own. A vase of roses on the table. A bowl of seashells from a nearby beach. A giant stuffed bear sits on the couch, a gift from her now-15-year-old son, who has been living with her since February. A portrait of him on his first communion hangs in her bedroom. A welcome home sign hangs in his.
“He just wants to move forward, to live now,” she said of Francisco. “He is a little big man. I think my son is amazing. He is so mature.”
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