Mennonites' informal lifeline for jailed mothers

Audrey Manson gave birth to Majay, now 4, in jail and turned her over to Edith Wenger (right) in the Mennonite Caregivers Program.
Audrey Manson gave birth to Majay, now 4, in jail and turned her over to Edith Wenger (right) in the Mennonite Caregivers Program.
Posted: March 07, 2011

With a prison guard nearby and her ankles shackled, Audrey Manson gave birth to a healthy baby girl she named Serenity Faith Majay.

The next day, she held her daughter, changed her diaper - and turned the newborn over to a Mennonite family.

By the time Manson was back at Riverside Correctional Facility in Northeast Philadelphia, the Mennonites who had agreed to foster her daughter had settled the baby into their home in Manheim, Pa., where stretches of Lancaster County countryside dwarf urban yards and horse-drawn buggies are a soothing counterpoint to city streets.

"I knew I had to give her up," Manson said. "I wanted her to go to the prison with me, but that wouldn't have been fair to her even if the prison let babies come in."

Today, Manson, 44, is out of jail and beating a drug habit after serving her sentence for prostitution and theft-related charges. She is passionate about helping other women through her work with the Fresh Start Foundation in Philadelphia, which helps recovering addicts.

Despite her progress, Manson has decided to let her now 4-year-old daughter, who goes by Majay, continue to live on the one-acre lot with Edith and Allen Wenger and their four biological children.

"She's part of us. She's like one of our own," Edith Wenger, 40, said of the fourth child they have fostered from Riverside moms. "She's our day-brightener."

In the last 12 years, 91 babies born to mothers in Riverside have been fostered in central Pennsylvania through Mennonite Caregivers Program, an informal arrangement in which incarcerated women turn over their children to Mennonite families unsupervised by any government agency. Many mothers without family or friends to care for their infants are grateful for an alternative that avoids the Philadelphia Department of Human Services - an agency that may have intervened with the women's other children or that may hold bad memories for them from their own childhood. The women appreciate the simple, safe lives afforded their babies, despite the cultural and racial differences - most of the babies are African American and the Mennonite families are white.

Still, the one-page custody agreements have flaws.

After a complaint was filed last year to DHS concerning former inmate Melinda Price - she didn't want her child to live with the Mennonites anymore - Philadelphia Inspector General Amy Kurland launched an investigation. Around the same time, Mennonites stopped getting newborns from Riverside, although 31 children still are in their care.

"I get that some people don't want to be involved with DHS," said Commissioner Anne Marie Ambrose, who, prior to the complaint, hadn't known the program existed.

"I had concerns about the opportunity to circumvent the child welfare system when there might be real threats to the well-being and safety of some children."

Pregnant women make up a common, if small, subgroup of prison populations. On any given day in Riverside, Philadelphia's jail for women, about 12 to 20 inmates out of an average of about 650 are pregnant. The mothers - fathers are generally not in the picture - usually decide who will care for their children.

Divine motivation

And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me. - Matthew 18:5

That biblical verse motivates the 30 families living mainly in Lancaster, Cumberland, and Lebanon Counties who make up the Mennonite Caregivers Program.

"We do not want to draw attention to ourselves, but rather give all glory and honor to God," said Carol Wise, 45, of New Holland, Pa., on behalf of all the families. She and her husband currently foster two children.

Mothers learn of the Mennonites largely from other prisoners making use of the program. The Riverside chaplain and a Philadelphia nonprofit that works in the prison, Maternity Care Coalition's MOMobile, assisted women interested in Mennonite help.

"We didn't endorse, we didn't refer," said Bette Begleiter, the coalition's deputy executive director. MOMobile staff did answer questions and help fill out forms.

Each family keeps records on its foster children, Wise said, and the birth mother has a copy of the custody agreement. The foster families are not paid, but they may be able to get Medicaid and baby formula through WIC, the federal supplemental nutrition program.

Mervin and Janice Hoover, who have a dairy farm in Denver, Pa., care for two girls of Philadelphia inmates, a 3-year-old they call Dearie (the Hoovers did not have permission from the birth mother to allow her real name to be used), and Destiny, 2. Both are African American.

"We feel we can give the children lots of love and a stable life," said Mervin, 33.

As their foster parents talked, Destiny, in a traditional Mennonite dress, grabbed one book and then another, climbing on and off the lap of Wise, who had settled into an armchair. Dearie, shy with an unfamiliar visitor in the house, buried her head in Janice's lap.

At the Hoovers' - with electricity and phone service but no TV or radio - the girls read, play with toys, or go outside while Mervin works nearby. Dearie feeds the calves.

The Mennonite families are diligent in bringing the children for visits, birth mothers said. They send pictures and ask the mothers' opinions about their child's care - a requirement of the custody agreement.

"I got so many pictures," Manson said. "I felt I was a part of seeing her grow up even though I was in prison."

The fostered children live in devout Christian households and see the faith practiced in everyday life, Wise said. But the program's aim isn't to recruit children for the Mennonites or, necessarily, to be adopted, she said. According to the custody agreement, the families and birth mothers "mutually agree" to return the children to their birth mothers if "Mother is ready to take care and custody of the child."

The Hoovers had prepared themselves to return Dearie a couple of times. But, according to Janice Hoover, the mother said she wasn't ready, and then the mother dropped contact. Now, the Hoovers are in the process of adopting Dearie.

The complaint

Although Ambrose didn't know about the Mennonite Caregiver Program, other DHS staff did. Mennonites sometimes had been in touch with the agency's caseworkers if foster families worried that a child would be returned to an unsafe situation.

Women's and prisoner advocates and some state legislators knew of it, too. Still, the program operated quietly.

"It was an informal system that worked. People appreciated that and wanted it to continue," said Ann Schwartzman, policy director for the Pennsylvania Prison Society.

Price, the woman whose case fueled the city investigation, gave birth at 19 to son Saiquane last year while serving a sentence for conspiracy to commit robbery.

The exact events leading to Price's complaint are unclear, but they started when Price gave 2-week-old Saiquane to Mennonite Melissa Weiler while serving her sentence at Riverside and at New Directions for Women, a Germantown nonprofit that is an alternative to incarceration.

When New Directions placed Price in a mother-baby program elsewhere, Weiler turned custody of Saiquane back over to Price. After 48 hours in the mother-baby program, Price fled with her son for the home of an acquaintance. She eventually returned to New Directions to finish her sentence after the mother-baby program wouldn't readmit her - and that's when the controversy began over Saiquane's care.

Price wanted her friend to take him because she lived nearby. Carolyn Stewart, executive director of New Directions, recommended the baby be returned to the Mennonite family because of the custody agreement. When Weiler took the baby back, the complaint was made. Eventually, the baby was returned to Price.

Price said the Weilers took good care of Saiquane, but her decision to give him away - both times - was because she felt she had no other choice.

"I had to send him back, and I didn't like it," she said at her mother's house, while packing her and her 1-year-old's belongings to move to a friend's in Upper Darby.

Of Weiler, Stewart said, "She never tried to hold on to him. The only thing she's ever done, in my opinion, was to try to help Melinda get herself straight."

Ambrose, the DHS chief, said she wasn't seeking to close down the Mennonite program, but believed the custody agreement requires mothers to give up too many rights - caretakers, for instance, aren't responsible in the event of the child's accidental death or injury. Also, African American children isolated in a community so culturally different from their own could make it difficult for a child to readjust to their biological mothers, she said.

The agency is working with the prison system, Ambrose said, on a protocol for monitoring these foster situations. Mennonites say they would be happy to work more closely with DHS - they just want to be able to keep fostering these babies.

No matter the outcome of the Philadelphia investigation, advocates for women in prison say more options are needed for babies to stay with their mothers. Research suggests that incarcerated women who mother their babies have a lower recidivism rate. For the baby, bonding with the mother between the ages of 3 months and 18 months holds lifelong benefits.

"That's the critical time for the brain to actually get involved in creating neurobiological processes that recognize secure relationships," said Columbia University clinical health-care professor and prison nursery researcher Mary Byrne.

Prison nurseries operate in eight states, Byrne said. (Pennsylvania and New Jersey are not among them.) Community facilities also are a sentencing option for pregnant women.

Mothers and daughter

Recently, Edith Wenger and Majay traveled to Philadelphia to meet Manson at a restaurant. Majay cuddled on Wenger's lap and then played with "Mama Audrey." When asked who her mother was, Majay pointed to the bonnet-wearing Wenger.

Majay asked once if God could remake her so her skin would be light like Wenger's. When Wenger said that wasn't possible, the girl asked if God could turn Wenger's skin darker like her own.

None of this bothers Manson. She and her family teach Majay about her African American heritage when the little girl stays with her in Philadelphia. Manson also has taught Wenger a few things, like how best to braid Majay's hair into cornrows.

Manson likes to imagine her daughter growing up in Lancaster County, far from her home on hardscrabble Frankford Avenue. Manson recalls the photo she once got in prison of Majay picking a daisy in the countryside.

"If you could dream," she said, "you would dream that."


Contact staff writer Carolyn Davis at 215-854-4214 or cdavis@phillynews.com.

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