Incarcerated mothers’ rights discussed

A bill meant to keep infants with their incarcerated mothers whenever possible was heard by members of the Judiciary Committee Feb. 11.

Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh
Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh

LB119, sponsored by Omaha Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, would require that a lactating mother be given the opportunity to nurse or express milk for her infant while housed in a state Department of Correctional Services facility, county jail or youth rehabilitation and treatment center.

Cavanaugh said the bill is an attempt to improve opportunities for incarcerated women and youth housed in a YRTC to bond with their infants.

“Research and common sense tell us that bonding with a newborn is essential for that child to thrive and a great motivator for that mother to care for that child in a way that keeps her out of a YRTC, jail or prison in the future,” she said.

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 or to comply with a court-ordered custody arrangement or formal parenting agreement.

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.

A correctional facility also could allow a pregnant prisoner, detainee or juvenile to live in a dedicated space for mothers prior to giving birth, if space is available.

Speaking on behalf of the ACLU of Nebraska, Scout Richters supported LB119. The bill is important, she said, because the number of women in American prisons and jails grew 700 percent from 1980 to 2019.

“The bill provides that the default is that infants remain with their mothers who are incarcerated or in a juvenile facility, which provides the means to keep families together during critical periods of child development,” Richters said.

NDCS Director Scott Frakes opposed the bill. Allowing a mother to bring her baby into a correctional facility, he said, is tantamount to sentencing that child to incarceration.

“Prison poses inherent dangers, even in the most secure environments,” Frakes said. “I don’t believe that it’s good public policy to remove children from the community and bring them into a prison environment.”

The committee took no immediate action on LB119.

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