At four months old, Honor is already a celebrity at Montana Women’s Prison where he has been a visitor twice weekly since birth.
His mother, Jennifer Birkoski, is one of nearly 220 women confined to the prison on South 27th Street. With an average age of 35, most of the female inmates have minor children, according to AnnaMae Siegfried-Derrick, community relations and volunteer manager for the prison.
The majority of these women have been convicted of nonviolent crimes related to drug abuse. Birkoski is serving a sentence for drug distribution. Incarcerated last December for a parole violation, she joined the prenatal/postnatal support group conducted by The Family Tree Center. Last year, Family Tree staff attended six inmates who gave birth. Birkoski’s baby is the only one for 2018. Family Tree has had up to 100 inmates at a time in various parenting classes in the prison.
Family Tree Executive Director Stacy Dreessen and parent advocate Jessica McLaughlin accompanied Birkoski to St. Vincent Healthcare for her baby’s birth. Back in prison two days later, Birkoski continued weekly parenting classes and started pumping breast milk for Honor.
McLaughlin brought the baby to the prison for a one-hour visit Wednesday morning. The child visiting room is cheerfully furnished with a couch, rocking chairs, toys, books, games and holiday decorations. A small kitchen allows mothers to prepare snacks for their children.
The Montana Department of Corrections contracts with Family Tree Center for parenting classes and supervised children’s visits. But the government doesn’t fund the community services Family Tree Center provides once parents have left prison — the services that are available at no charge to struggling families regardless of whether a parent has been incarcerated.
“Inmates are often the sole caregiver at the time of their arrest,” Siegfried-Derrick said. “A lot of them will get back with their kids soon.”
On average, inmates stay at the women’s prison just under 20 months.
Birkoski will be eligible for parole in February. She plans to stay in Billings and care for Honor. She hopes to find sober mother-child housing, which is very limited even in the state’s largest city.
Parents with felony records have many obstacle. They won’t be hired for many jobs; they can’t rent at many apartment complexes. Family Tree Center offers help with the transition to parenting outside of prison.
Family Tree Center is a small, local nonprofit sponsored by Billings Exchange Clubs and nationally certified as a child abuse prevention center.
Birkoski completed Family Tree’s 15-week nurturing parenting class.
“The class focuses on parenting with substance abuse problems,” Birkoski said. “It helps you prepare to parent and to rekindle the relationships you have lost.”
Family Tree helped her make a plan for who would care for Honor while she remains in prison.
Other Family Tree services offered at no charge include home visits and respite child care while parents are at appointments. All programs provide child care and meals and sometimes a children’s program that integrates what the parents are learning in their class.
The Family Tree Center, 2520 Fifth Ave. S., relies on community donations to fund its services outside the prison. The major annual fundraiser, Festival of Trees, kicks off Thursday at MetraPark and continues through Saturday.
To help prevent child abuse, check out the “If you go” box for information on Festival of Trees. Helping is so easy this week.