Lynn Burke and her family
Lynn Burke and her family. (bottom to top): Burke, granddaughter Cassidy, son Jimmy, daughter Cristin, granddaughter Journey, daughter Courtney, and daughter Candice

By Rose Hoban

When Lynn Burke was incarcerated at North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh she didn’t see her kids for the first six months of her term. She was depressed and figured they were better off without her. Then they came for a Christmas visit.

“Something changed in me that day, when my kids all ran to me and said, “Mommy, when are you coming home?” ” Burke remembers.

North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women
North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women. Photo courtesy, NC Dept of Public Safety

Burke completed her two year term for forging and passing bad checks in 1990. Now she’s a college and law school graduate waiting for her license to practice law. And she advocates for more support for incarcerated women to help them learn to parent better and maintain stronger ties with their children.

Burke will be one of the speakers at a symposium Tuesday on the state of children of incarcerated mothers in North Carolina. The event is sponsored by the Chapel Hill-based organization Our Children’s Place, that focuses on these children.

North Carolina has about 2600 women serving time behind bars, mostly for drug-related offenses. The state doesn’t have exact statistics, but nationally, about two-thirds of female prisoners have a minor child. Studies show that when a woman is incarcerated, only about a quarter of those children end up living with their fathers. The rest end up with extended family, or in the foster care system, including infants born to female inmates while they’re incarcerated.

But a number of states, as well as the federal system, have made accommodations to allow imprisoned women to parent their children while serving their sentences, and learn about parenting at the same time. Facilities range from day nurseries and facilities where women can live with their young children while still behind bars, to free-standing, locked facilities where women can live with their children.

“When you remove children from their mothers, you fracture the attachment,” said Dee Ann Newell, director of Arkansas Voices for the Children Left Behind, and a speaker at Tuesday’s event.

The problem isn’t just that babies can’t bond with a mother who’s not there, Newell said. “There’s a reciprocal attachment that happens with mothers. They do all the grunge work of sitting up all night with a sick child, interspersed with those wonderful moments that help mothers fall in love with their babies.”

And those mothers who are not as attached to their children are more likely to re-offend and abandon their children again, Newell said. “So, the babies are not as secure.”

According to Newell, children of incarcerated parents are about twice as likely to offend themselves later in life, but there are no solid statistics.

It’s just perpetuating the cycle for the mother and child,” said Melissa Radcliff, director of Our Children’s Place. “If something isn’t happening while they’re in prison, there’s no incentive to change. They don’t have any skills and if we haven’t addressed why they went to prison, it leads to recidivism.”

Research has shown that women who have the opportunity to parent, and learn parenting, while in prison are far less likely to return to prison, Radcliff said.

That’s what Our Children’s Place hopes to accomplish. Originally, the organization was formed to facilitate creating a center for several dozen women and their infants or toddlers. The state set aside $3.5 million to convert an old building on the campus of Umstead Hospital in Butner.

But the money was eliminated in the 2009 budget. So, the board of Our Children’s Place had to scale back its ambitions.

When the money went away, we as an agency wondered if we needed to back up a little bit and do some additional work,” Radcliff said. “Activities like raising awareness, educating people about policy issues and getting the community as a whole involved.”

According to Radcliff, Tuesday’s event at the Friday Center in Chapel Hill is full and there’s a waiting list. Newell is coming from Arkansas to be the main speaker.

Lynn Burke and her family
Lynn Burke and her family. (bottom to top): Burke, granddaughter Cassidy, son Jimmy, daughter Cristin, granddaughter Journey, daughter Courtney, and daughter Candice

We’re taking the opportunity to see what other states are doing, and see what lessons we can take from them. That’s what lead to our decision to have the symposium,” Radcliff said. She hopes to create a way for participants to continue to work together, and plans to follow up with people who came to the symposium after six months.

In addition to representatives from the Department of Public Safety, participants will include social workers, school guidance counselors, state level health and social service officials, and members of the community.

Lynn Burke will also talk about her time in prison and beyond, and what women need to succeed once they’ve completed their sentences.

Burke was unusual. She managed to see her kids a little while she was was on study release. Her apartment was on the bus line back and forth to NC State University, where she was allowed to study. So, a couple of times a week, she was able to jump off the bus, and run home to clean or cook for her four children, who were living with their drug abusing father.

When Burke was released at the end of a two year term, she was determined her kids would never go through the experience again. She kicked the children’s father out and got herself through school.

It took them a while for them to believe they wouldn’t go anywhere,” Burke said. Over time, she won back their trust.

Some people might fail at being a citizen, but they can still be good parents,” Burke said.

All four of Burke’s children completed college, in part, she says, because she pushed them.

I was always able to say, “You’re not going to be like me.””

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Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...