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County program helps children of prisoners

| Sunday, Dec. 7, 2008

What Jill Brant remembers from her first visits to the Allegheny County jail as a new lawyer are the children: squirming, fidgety and stressed, under the watch of guards who demanded they sit quietly while waiting, sometimes for hours, to see their parents.

The jail has changed in the three years since then, in part because of the Pittsburgh Child Guidance Foundation. Its study led to a play area with toys to keep children occupied before visiting parents.

That was part one of the study, and now Brant is the focal point for part two.

After a two-year pilot program funded by the foundation, the Export resident became an advocate this summer for inmates and their families. That means visiting the jail several times a week to help inmates get the services they need. It also means fulfilling the recommendations of the study by establishing a countywide safety net for children whose parents have been arrested.

"We have the parents who don't want to cooperate, police who only want to deal with one issue (the arrest), and (the Office of Children, Youth and Families) who feels they're being called too often and breaking up families when that isn't necessary," Brant said. "Basically, all the groups, CYF, the police, they're all maxed out; they didn't need an extra job."

Brant is working with 16 county agencies and groups to create a temporary place for the children until a family member or guardian can care for them. Pittsburgh police are the first agency to use the system, which they are doing on a six-month trial. In January, Brant will work with Gwen's Girls, a residential program in the North Side, to give the children a temporary safe-haven if their parents have been taken to jail.

Now, if a relative or guardian cannot be contacted, these children sometimes spend a night at a police station, get automatically put into the child-welfare system, or even come home to an empty house if an arrest happened while they were at school.

"We don't want to have, you know, a negative interaction to where the kids hate police," said Pittsburgh police Assistant Chief Maurita Bryant, who has been working with Brant in recent weeks to introduce the protocol to sergeants and lieutenants. "We just don't want to run into a situation, make the arrest and leave the kids there without knowing who's going to take care of them."

There are roughly 7,000 Allegheny County youngsters each day who have a parent incarcerated in jail or a state prison, according to the foundation.

If Pittsburgh's six-month trial is successful, Brant would need to find more organizations in the suburbs to care for the children for up to four hours until a relative or guardian can retrieve them.

Brant grew up in Somerset County and moved here after graduating from Widener Law School in Harrisburg in 2004. She had temporary jobs for local law firms, including the work for a criminal practice that sent her to the county jail.

Families came to her, often handing over the equivalent of one full paycheck just for legal fees. She now is an employee of Pittsburgh-based Great Lakes Behavioral Research Institute, which is under contract with Allegheny County to provide advocacy services. The foundation did not provide an exact figure for her salary, but said it ranged from $50,000 to $55,000.

"She's a young lawyer who has a real, great compassion for the people she has served. ... I think that little bit of experience and that good training gave her a real sense of what needed to be done," said Claire Walker, executive director of the Pittsburgh Child Guidance Foundation. "In every bureaucracy there needs to be grease to make the wheels run smoother to make all the gears mesh. ... Jill is the grease."

The foundation found no government position quite like Brant's elsewhere in the country, Walker said.

Brant helps inmates sort through a complex system of public and private social service agencies and matches them to the ones that can help. She also is putting together a handbook to explain to jailed parents how best to keep in contact with their family and to get the best care for their children.

Tuesday, she met Rita Mueller, 43, of Oakmont, who is on parole for a state offense but ended up in the county jail because she didn't have a home or a family member to be released to, Mueller said. If she goes 120 days without finding housing, she could end up back in state prison on her harassment charge.

Mueller wrote more than 20 letters, mostly to jail officials, before a Downtown charity redirected her letter to Brant. They sat together on plastic chairs in a stark white side room of Pod 4F -- a meeting that Mueller, a mother of four, hoped would be her salvation from a trip back to state prison.

"Thank God. I've been here for so long, and I've finally found the right person," she said. "It's hard in here (to find help). You have to go through the chain of command and there's very little staff.

"If I don't smile, I cry," she added before looking at Brant. "You're a blessing."

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