Bill would ensure rights of incarcerated mothers

The Judiciary Committee heard testimony Feb. 12 on a bill that seeks to keep infants with their incarcerated mothers whenever possible.

<a href='' target='_blank' title='Link to the website of Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh'>Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh</a>
Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh

LB1171, sponsored by Omaha Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, would require that a lactating mother be given the opportunity to nurse or express milk for her infant. A breast pump, breast milk storage containers and safe storage of milk also would be guaranteed under the bill.

Cavanaugh said that between 5 and 10 percent of women entering jail do so while pregnant.

“Breast milk has numerous health benefits to both the mother and child, including low rates of diabetes, improved antibodies and strengthening the bond between mother and child,” she said. “It should be encouraged whenever possible.”

The bill also would prevent physical separation of a child younger than 24 months from his or her mother, unless a facility administrator determines that doing so presents a clear and imminent danger to the child.

Each facility operator would be required to develop a parent separation policy, which would include a process for placing an infant with their mother, a plan to provide for lactation and information regarding the mother’s parental rights while in custody.

Juliet Summers, representing Voices for Children in Nebraska, spoke in support of the bill. As Nebraska undergoes the planning process to modernize the state’s troubled Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center system, she said, lawmakers have a moment of opportunity to radically rethink all aspects of correctional programming.

“Developing clear policies regarding family separation, investing in an appropriate living space for children to safely reside postpartum with their mother whenever possible and incorporating hands-on parenting into a mother’s individualized treatment plan would truly reflect Nebraska’s family values,” Summers said.

Opposing the bill was Scott Frakes, director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services. He said LB1171 does not account for the trauma that would result for both mother and child when a toddler ages out of the bill’s provisions at 24 months and the mother must remain to serve out a substantial sentence.

As introduced, the bill would apply not only to women who are pregnant when they become incarcerated, Frakes said, but all incarcerated mothers with children younger than 24 months.

“While studies indicate lower recidivism among mothers who participate in nursery programs, there’s no research to support the effectiveness of letting women bring their children with them to prison,” he said. “Nor is there information about the long-term effects on children who are brought from the community and exposed to a prison environment.”

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

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