Babies born to women in prison would be able to stay with their mothers for up to 18 months under a bill awaiting action by the Missouri Senate.
The state’s House of Representatives has already passed HB 1897, sponsored by state Rep. Bruce DeGroot of Ellisville, by a vote of 127-1.
The Senate has until 6 p.m. Friday, May 13 — the end of the current legislative session — to vote on the bill.
It would allow the Missouri Department of Corrections (DOC) to establish nurseries in the state’s female correctional facilities.
It would create a Correctional Center Nursery Program Fund to cover the costs of the program. The fund would be able to receive money from legislative appropriation; assignment of child support by prison residents; and gifts, grants and donations.
The bill would give DOC authority to determine which women are eligible for the program.
In order to participate, the women would have to meet educational and counseling requirements, such as completion of a high school equivalency program and participation in evidence-based parenting classes.
The Missouri Catholic Conference (MCC), public-policy agency for the state’s four Roman Catholic dioceses, testified in favor of the bill, noting that nearly a dozen states have already established prison nursery programs.
Advocates say that those programs have led to a decrease in recidivism for the mothers and have improved the overall atmosphere and culture of the entire facility.
“In addition, supporters say that allowing infants to remain with their mothers during such a crucial time in development will lead to better health and emotional outcomes for them, as well,” the MCC stated.
Father Louis Dorn, a retired priest of the diocese who has been visiting prisons for 35 years, said giving women in prison the chance to bond with their babies could contribute to their rehabilitation.
“Having been chaplain to incarcerated women for many years, I know that one of the most painful things for them is the separation from their newborn infants,” he stated.
“It is demoralizing and harmful to their mental health,” he said.
Father Joseph Corel, vicar for ministry to the incarcerated in the Jefferson City diocese, said passing the law would allow the DOC to provide stability and a safe, nurturing environment for infants born to mothers in prison.
Anytime such an environment can be created for parents and children, “the child will do much better, and the parent will have the dignity to be who they are called to be as a parent,” said Fr. Corel.
“As the Department of Corrections does what it can to ensure that the mother is receiving the tools she needs to be a responsible, healthy parent for her expectant child once the child is born, we want to support and encourage these efforts,” said Fr. Corel, who is also one of two pastors in solidum of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Pettis County.
He added that if passed, the law would provide a good opportunity for Catholics to volunteer for programs to help mothers and their children in prison.
The Senate Committee on Seniors, Families, Veterans and Military Affairs held a public hearing on the bill on April. 20.