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Stacey A. Shortall says even a polite foreigner such as herself can see to the Dickensian quick of a blemish on the criminal justice system of New York. “Women are quite easily losing their children in this system,” said Shortall, 29, a New Zealander and a litigator at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. “It’s a global issue, really, the deterioration of family units, and the consequences.” On Mother’s Day the issue was expected to come under intense review by the approximately 3,000 women behind bars in New York state. Many of them, if not most, are hit with a bipartisan double whammy of get-tough politics: the Rockefeller drug laws and the Adoption and Safe Families Act passed during the Clinton era. “A lot of lawyers have no idea what we’re facing,” said Christina Voight, a 38-year-old ex-inmate at the women’s Taconic Correctional Facility in Bedford Hills, N.Y. She spoke earlier this month during a panel discussion on the issue hosted by the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. With reference to the federal act, she added, “The bill was passed without too many questions. I think it was only two [members of Congress] who thought it might be a bad idea.” The “bad idea” works out this way: Women sentenced under the state laws, signed by the late Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller 29 years ago this month, serve a mandatory minimum prison sentence of four years on conviction of minor drug offenses. For the most part, their children are packed off to foster homes. Consequently, mothers face a sort of Catch-22. The federal law requires states to commence termination of their parental rights if children are in foster care for more than 15 months. Either that, or the states lose certain federal funds. At their inception, these two laws were politically popular. Each now faces a growing chorus of critics, witness the throng of demonstrators in New York City and Albany recently calling for the reform or outright abolition of the harsh Rockefeller drug laws. Meanwhile on the legal front, young attorneys such as Shortall and her former colleague at Paul Weiss — Amy C. Brown, 27, now a third-year associate in the white-collar crimes department at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom — do what they can by way of counseling one of the most marginalized of society’s subgroups. The two lawyers work as pro bono counselors for the Incarcerated Mothers Law Project. “We sit at our law firm jobs and earn a nice income,” said Brown, a graduate of New York University School of Law. “We need to be reminded that just a few blocks away, it’s a totally different world where people see things every day that we just can’t imagine.” Brown and Shortall visit inmates on a monthly basis to provide basic information about their rights and duties as parents. They also represent clients in Family Court on visitation matters — a tricky business, since social workers do not generally favor children being taken to prisons. “It took me, working as a lawyer, seven months to arrange a visit,” said Brown of the last case she handled, on behalf of a woman held at the Bayview Correctional Facility in Manhattan. The client, a drug abuser who had injured the younger of her two children, was suffering grave illness. “It was very, very difficult because the therapist was worried about the effect of the son seeing his mother in jail. “I had the people at Bayview take pictures of the [child visitation] area. It’s filled with toys and chairs. “You often act more as a social worker, reaching out to your clients’ families, to the people taking care of their kids,” said Brown. “If a woman is incarcerated, she’s not entitled to counsel unless there’s a proceeding in court. So when her children are in foster care, there’s no one to advocate for her, to make sure she gets visitation. “We advocate for them behind the scenes,” said Brown. “That often means making phone calls on their behalf.” At Bayview and the two other locations where women are held — the Rose M. Singer Center at Rikers Island, in Queens, and the Taconic Correction Facility in Bedford Hills — inmates are allowed to make collect telephone calls one day a week. When a mother’s visitation rights are not being observed by a foster agency, inmates are advised to lodge telephone complaints. For the most part, social service agencies do not accept collect calls. Martha L. Raimon, a lawyer and director of the Incarcerated Mothers Law Project, said half the mothers in prison never receive their rightful visitations. Although the impulse to keep their children is strong, and sadly so, said Raimon, many imprisoned mothers do not have the necessary information or practical ability to do so. “Our clients are mostly from single-parent homes, they may have lived in foster homes themselves, there is usually someone in their immediate family who is incarcerated,” said Raimon, 44, a former staff attorney for South Brooklyn Legal Services. “She is poor, she has been sexually abused, she has a limited education, she has substance abuse problems, she has poor employment skills.” “When a mother is incarcerated,” she added, “a family is broken.” Though not typical of the clients served by the Law Project, Voight’s odyssey suggests that a broken home may be restored. After fleeing the house she owned in North Carolina, which she shared with a man who beat her regularly, Voight found her way to Syracuse, N.Y., where she soon took an apartment and a job. But just as soon, her ex-companion showed up. There was a kitchen fire that caused $495 of damage to the landlord’s premises. Voight was convicted of second-degree arson. When police brought her to the Bedford Hills women’s prison, she was pregnant. When a son was born, he was put into foster care. “I wrote to my baby every day, I knitted and crocheted,” said Voight. “They let me see him four times. When he came, he never smiled. He never laughed. He just stared blankly. “He had feces in his hair and under his fingernails,” she said. “His clothes were four times too big. His feet were black. “I went to the prison law library.” With the help of Philip A. Genty, 47, a clinical law professor at Columbia Law School’s Morningside Heights Legal Services, Voight drafted a motion that convinced a family court judge last year to allow mother and son to live together at a group home in Queens. “I used to say, ‘I’d never let a man hit me, I’d never get into that situation.’ But I did,” said Voight. “And now I’m a testimony to what can happen to regular middle-class people with homes and cars. “I get a lot of help and a lot of support,” she said. “But you know, there’s a lot of my sisters still in prison who don’t know how to read or write, and who never get to see a lawyer.” Professor Genty said Voight “gave as good as she got” while at Bedford Hills, where she eventually pitched in as a teacher in the prison’s family law class. Today, she is a psychology major in her senior year at Mary Mount Manhattan College. Shortall, a graduate of the Victoria University of Wellington Faculty of Law, in New Zealand, offered a criticism of the American system: “Unfortunately, until some of these women are incarcerated, they don’t learn about their rights. It seems slightly backward to me. “So with this [pro bono] work, we hope to do a bit of educating,” she said. “By educating the few, the word spreads.” But too late for Brown’s last client, for whom she had worked a full year to successfully place her two younger sons in the adoptive home of an adult son. “She called me from the prison a couple of times, crying,” said Brown. “She said she was sick and needed to go to a hospital. “She told me, ‘It’s just so hard because I’m just getting around to seeing my kids, and now I’m afraid I won’t be around.” Last week, Brown’s client died in prison.

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