Some things in life are hard for children to understand, like why their mothers, who are serving time behind bars, can’t tuck them into bed at night. That’s where one local nonprofit has stepped in to try and bridge the gap between incarcerated mothers and their children.
Bridges for Hope, a Kennesaw-based nonprofit, has dedicated the last five years to providing a sense of hope for families separated by prison time.
“We bring children together for visits with their mothers who are incarcerated to try and strengthen those family bonds,” Michelle Bivins, founder and CEO of Bridges for Hope, said.
Although Bivins has built a foundation for mothers to reconnect with their children, she said she does not take credit for the idea; instead, she put the nonprofit’s existence in the hands of a higher power — God.
“I was driving home one day and was being grateful for what God has blessed me with. I asked Him what I could do for Him in return. I heard the call; He wanted me to take children to see their mothers in prison. So, I answered it,” she said.
At the same time, a group of mothers in one of the state penitentiaries was asking God for a miracle — for a chance to see the children they had left behind.
“I can’t take credit for coming up with the idea at all,” Bivins said.
Bridges for Hope currently is working to connect 29 metro-Atlanta children with their mothers and another 20 are on a waiting list. But because these women are serving time behind bars, Bivins said, it is not an “ask and you shall receive” situation.
Prisoners, regardless of whether they are mothers or not, do not have a right to visitation; it is a privilege afforded to the offender, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections.
State prisoners also must be approved for visitation, and the warden has the final say. For mothers seeking to see their children through Bridges for Hope, the process is slightly different as they are required to complete a class.
“They usually have a children’s center for visitation and that is a lot different from a regular visitation,” Bivins said. “A children’s center visitation has to be earned by the inmate. They go through a stringent parenting class, and once they successfully complete that they can have this one special visit a month with their child.”
In the event an offender gets disciplined, Bivins said they lose the privilege of visiting with their child through the nonprofit for several months.
“It is something that has to be achieved or earned by the inmate and they can lose it,” she said. “It’s really a good incentive for the offenders to be on good behavior.”
Visitations, in general, are different for these inmates, as they are taken to a separate building to see their children.
“It is kind of painted like a pediatrician’s office with all the cartoon characters and it is fenced in separately from the other parts of the prison so the kids can actually go outside and enjoy activities on the prison ground,” Bivins said. “This allows them to interact more and enjoy the visit. It’s a lot more than just talking on the phone between the glass where you cannot even touch.”
Although Bivins said children between 7 and 12 are most affected by a parent’s incarceration, Bridges for Hope will connect teens as old as 17 with their mothers.
“If there is an infant that has passed the 6-week check-up, they can pretty much come,” Bivins said, adding that a caregiver is allowed to ride to the prison with the infant; however, the caregiver is not authorized to visit with the offender. “What we do is just take the child in and once it is reconnected with its mother the chaplain will take it from there.”
Because the average age of children with an incarcerated parent is 8, Bivins said it can be difficult for them to grasp exactly why their mothers are not around.
“When I started out, I noticed the children were very eager to go, but as we approached the prison and got closer they got really anxious,” Bivins said. “Most of them had not seen their mothers in four or five years just because they don’t have transportation.”
To make the trip more comfortable for the children, Bivins said the nonprofit rents extended SUVs with televisions.
“If the kids can watch a movie on the way up, it really helps with the anxiety but it is also therapeutic for them because most of these children are from different neighborhoods and would probably have never met one another; they are forming a bond,” she said.
Similar to a mother dropping her child off at the first day of school, the children also get anxious when it is time to leave.
“They are leaving their moms, and it is really hard for both the kids and the mothers. They just really don’t want to leave,” Bivins said.
To ease a child’s anxiety, Bivins said Bridges for Hope hosts a “wind down” event, too.
“This is something that we incorporated so that they don’t have to leave the visit, go back home and have a hard time processing it,”she said.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are teenagers who were forced to grow up too fast because of their mothers’ actions. Those actions, in some cases, have caused deep scars, created an overwhelming amount of anger and pushed an innocent child to becoming a statistic, as the federal government recognizes children of incarcerated parents as among the highest of “at-risk” children.
“We have a lot of teenagers that have been very angry with their mothers, and rightfully so, because they were put in a situation outside of their own choices,” Bivins said. “Over the years, we have encouraged the mothers to allow the children to effectively communicate that and accept responsibility.”
Bivins said mothers also are urged to apologize for their mistakes and ask for forgiveness.
“Once that is done,” Bivins said, “it opens a door for the mothers to explain how some of their bad decisions led to their incarceration. This helps prevent the teens from going down the same road and falling into that intergenerational incarceration.”
Bivins said there has been a lot of forgiveness and changes made.
“A lot of the mothers come out and try to fill all the years of void, but their children are still angry,” she said. “If these mothers can make the bond while they are still incarcerated it makes the transition back into the community so much better because a mother who has truly been rehabilitated will want to make things right.”
Bridges for Hope also hosts other activities throughout the month for the children, and the nonprofit also provides caregiver support, toys, clothing, mentoring and scholarships.
“We just want to keep them on a positive road and focused,” Bivins said. “I do believe that people would have compassion for these kids, who seem to have been forgotten about. Sometimes people only focus on the offender or crime and don’t realize that the innocent victims are the ones that are left behind.”
For more about the Bridges for Hope Foundation, to make a donation or to volunteer, visit www.bridgesforhope.com.