Stepping Up for Formerly Incarcerated Women and Their Children

Elizabeth Hendren, RISE Founder

Written by César Torres, Executive Director
Northwest Justice Project

Our Alliance for Equal Justice exists to overcome the many barriers to justice confronted daily by vulnerable low-income people across Washington State. The age of mass incarceration has resulted in untold numbers of already socially vulnerable persons, disproportionately people of color, also being burdened with the stigma of incarceration and the obstacles this poses to successfully reintegrating into society. Formerly incarcerated mothers face even greater obstacles.

Nationally, 62% of women in state prisons have a child under the age of 18. (The number of women in prison has grown over 800% in the past three decades). More than half of incarcerated women report enduring physical and/or sexual abuse prior to incarceration. Because women are usually the primary caregivers, incarcerated mothers are more likely than incarcerated fathers to have their children declared dependent, simply because they do not have someone who can provide care while they are incarcerated. Even when children are not removed by the state, formerly incarcerated mothers often face difficult custody battles against their former, often abusive partners and their families.

Despite the overwhelming need, Northwest Justice Project’s (NJP) Reentry Initiated through Services and Education (RISE) Project is the only civil legal aid project in Washington providing targeted civil legal services to formerly incarcerated mothers. The goal of RISE is to reunite families and promote their stability through employment opportunity, housing and income supports.

Elizabeth Hendren, who developed RISE while at law school, regularly visits Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women to provide incarcerated mothers with legal information to help them begin planning for the challenges they will confront when trying to reunite with their children after release. The relationships established Mission Creek often carryover to monthly drop-in legal clinic at YWCA Passage Point, a housing facility in King County for formerly incarcerated parents.

Formerly incarcerated mothers confront numerous complex legal issues that must be resolved before reuniting with her children. Issues range from challenging improperly investigated findings of abuse, reinstatement of driver’s license, assistance getting SSI for their children, sealing criminal records, help to obtain a Section 8 housing vouchers, reduction of monthly payments for child support arrears, help negotiating lower interest payments on their legal financial obligations, assistance obtaining protection orders, and assistance with modifying or establishing parenting plans.

Elizabeth Hendren was awarded a one year Seattle University’s Leadership for Justice Fellowship in 2012 to implement the RISE Project at NJP. In its first 11 months, RISE has grown into a comprehensive legal services program having provided advice and/or direct representation to 40 formerly incarcerated women who have 64 children among them; information and referrals to approximately 170 women; and, gave numerous presentations in women’s detention facilities. RISE partners with other reentry, parent advocacy and legal providers, including YWCA Passage Point, King County Parents for Parents Program, Women’s Wellness and Integrated Social Health, and Post-Prison Education Program. NJP looks forward to RISE continuing and expanding this critically important work within the Alliance in the coming years.