Pubdate: Fri, 23 Dec 2005
Source: Statesman Journal (Salem, OR)
Copyright: 2005 Statesman Journal
Author: Cara Roberts Murez


People In Marion County Jail Learn To Connect With Their Children

One year ago, Janette Vega was an inmate at the Marion County jail, 
separated from her five young children.She got out in January, went 
back in July after using methamphetamine and was released in August.

Vega's cycle of going in and out of jail, and the disruption that it 
brought to her children's lives, could have gone on forever. She 
celebrated her graduation this week from the first 12-week parenting 
class in the jail's new Children of Incarcerated Parents program.

Vega said she is confident that she is on track to making her life -- 
and those of the children she loves -- calmer and happier. "My life 
is so completely different now," Vega said. "I have a better plan 
now. I have a big support system, and that really helps."

The main component of the Children of Incarcerated Parents program is 
twice-weekly parenting classes. In 48 hours of classroom time, 
parents learn problem solving, effective listening, natural and 
logical consequences for misbehavior and emotional regulation to calm 
themselves, said parenting coach Laura Olin of the nonprofit 
organization Pathfinders of Oregon.

The Oregon Department of Corrections offers a similar but more 
extensive program in several state prisons.

A new Marion County class will start in January. Program organizers 
GayLynn Pack and Sgt. Tad Larson hope to add exercises that could 
help parents achieve stability, such as practice in filling out 
housing applications. Another possible addition would be offering the 
class to the spouses or co-caregivers of inmates to create a team approach.

In the current Marion County program, parents do role-playing, write 
projects and share their successes with the group. Many of the 
parents also are involved in drug treatment.

One mother who had no contact with her children before the class now 
is getting together with them three times per week, Olin said. Two 
couples taking the class have become friends, getting together with 
each other instead of with former drug contacts.

"It gives me hope," Olin said.

On Monday, 12 offenders -- parents of 24 children -- took their last 
class. On Wednesday night, they graduated. The graduation party 
rewarded families with certificates, family pictures and a Chinese 
takeout meal. Then, all the children received gifts and everyone got 
to play games, including a "cookie walk."

"I love you," said Cassie Wehr, 27, wrapping daughter Natalie, 6, in 
a hug as others continued to play.

"I love you so much," Natalie said, squeezing harder.

Wehr decided to participate in the program because she needed a 
parenting class to regain legal custody of her children. Clean for 
seven months, Wehr and her four children now live in an Oxford House 
residential treatment home in Salem. Her children, she said, probably 
still would be in foster care if not for the program and her drug treatment.

"I take time to actually see the humor in things. I don't get as 
frustrated and angry with the little things," Wehr said.

David and Melanie Tucker, both with a history of methamphetamine 
possession, took the class together to be better parents to Isacc, 7, 
Alanna, 3, and their baby due in April. David Tucker said the 
techniques he learned have improved his relationship with his children.

"My parole officer recommended it to me. I've got to tell you, I was 
not happy to come here at first," David Tucker said. "It's really 
been beneficial."

Melanie Tucker said she has learned that her children are individuals 
and need to be reached in different ways.

"I actually interact with them," she said. "Before, when I was on 
drugs, they were just kind of in my way."


Mentors Ready

In addition to the parenting classes, four of the 12 graduates from 
the Children of Incarcerated Parents program qualified for family 
mentors. Their children are getting mentors, too.

Program mentors will begin working with parents at the first of the 
year, said Dr. William Brown, the director of the northwest regional 
office of the Center on Juvenile & Criminal Justice.

They will provide support, advice, friendship and information about 
community resources with the goal of helping parents do a good job 
and keeping families intact.

Next Group

A new series of classes in the Children of Incarcerated Parents 
program will work with a new group of criminal offenders beginning in January.
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman