Keeping Families Together & Paying Less To Do So

We have all heard of a sad story that goes something like this: a mother makes a bad choice and is now charged with a felony and her innocent children are faced with being placed in foster care and all that comes along with it. Now, imagine an alternative. Imagine a situation where this mother serves her sentence – while keeping her family intact.

In 2008, the Brooklyn District Attorneys office created a family incarceration program in order to provide an alternative for these mothers who would otherwise be incarcerated and separated from their children. Instead, these women have the opportunity to serve their sentences in their own apartment at Drew House with their children while being monitored and fulfilling the Court’s mandates.

The women at Drew House are homeless mothers who have committed crimes ranging from drug possession to assault. The New York Times recently published an article highlighting Drew House and the stories of some of its women. One such woman, Ms. Urquidez, is a 36-year old victim of domestic violence battling bipolar disorder who was charged with burglary in 2009. Drew House helped her turn her life around. Since entering the program she has overcome her drug addiction, learned how to cope with bipolar disorder, has a restraining order against her sons’ father, and has completed her court mandate to take part in the Drew House program. Ms. Urquidez is beyond grateful for the program and credits the program for providing her two sons with stability claiming, “They’re living life how a kid is supposed to live”.

Drew House is the first program of its kind in New York State, and, according to a recent study conducted by Columbia University, it is the only one in the nation of its kind! The way the program works is very simple at its core. The women plead guilty, but their sentencing is delayed; if they complete the program, their felony charges are dismissed. In the program, the participants “must complete a court mandate that generally lasts between 12 and 24 months and includes court monitoring, drug testing, substance abuse treatment, parenting classes, education or vocational training and pursuit of employment. They are also responsible for adhering to house curfew and visitation rules and for paying a portion of their rent on entry and electricity after the first six months.” An important benefit to having their felony charges dismissed after successful completion of the program includes making it easier for these women to find employment and housing which gives them a head start in starting anew.

According to the study, the Drew House review is positive and the program should be replicated across the country. Out of the nine women who  have participated in the program since its inception, six have successfully completed their mandates and two are now working toward completion. The last woman was dismissed for repeated violations of house rules. “Of the six women who have completed the program, three have moved into stable housing and have not been charged with additional crimes. Two are employed and one is pursuing her GED.”

The program is not perfect (the report cited a few flaws with the current Drew House model) but it is definitely a step in the right direction. For example, even after completion of the program, women can continue to live at Drew House until they secure alternative, stable housing so as to prevent homelessness but this also means that there is that much less space for a new family in need.

Drew House and programs like it are much needed in New York and beyond. It offers a way for families to remain intact and quite possibly teaches children who participate in the program to make better choices than their mothers in life. More than that, it is cost-effective. It costs $34,000 a year to house a mother and two children, as opposed to $129,000 a year for incarceration and foster care. If we could spare children the emotional harm caused by being taken away from the only caregiver they have ever known, help women get their lives back on track and provide them with the tools to be self sufficient, AND pay less for it, who in their right mind would not jump at the opportunity?