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Mothers on the Rise: Supporting incarcerated mothers and their babies

The program is a partnership between the Indiana Department of Corrections and the IU Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health.

INDIANAPOLIS — It was 11 years ago when Nina Porter gave birth to her daughter, Gianna.

"I think she can do anything," Porter said, "because she is thriving and curious and caring."

When Gianna was born in 2011, Porter was incarcerated at the Indiana Women's Prison. Gianna was not her only child.

"I had 11 children, in and out of incarceration, prior to Gianna," Porter said, describing it as a cycle she could not beat. "Prior to my experience with Gianna, I was giving birth, leaving prison, getting pregnant, returning to prison pregnant, giving birth. Nothing really changed. It just was dormant."

Porter said the challenges she faced every time she was released from prison also stayed the same.

"To set a mother and a child on the other side of that fence from incarceration and say, 'Go ahead. Be a great mom. Have a good day.' ... It's ludicrous," Porter said.

This time, Porter's narrative changed, after she spent the better part of a year in prison with her newborn daughter.

"I didn't get it," Porter said. "I didn't understand what a maternal and child bond was until I slept a foot-and-a-half away from a baby for a year. When the maternal and child bond clicked for me, it was like an overwhelming guilt of, 'Why didn't I know that I didn't have this?'"

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Fast forward 11 years and Porter helps lead a movement to help other mothers experience that "click" early on. It's an initiative called Mothers on the Rise, a partnership between the Indiana Department of Corrections and the IU Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health.

"We work to ensure that these women who are most discarded by our society enjoy that just like everybody else does," said Dr. Jack Turman, a professor of social and behavioral sciences and the director of Mothers on the Rise.

Credit: Nina Porter
Staff from Mothers on the Rise.

Mothers on the Rise is also a branch of the Grassroots Maternal and Child Health Leadership Training Initiative that launched in 2018. It is designed to help women improve pregnancy and development outcomes in their own neighborhoods through peer mentorship.

That's where Porter comes in to play for Mothers on the Rise.

"If we don't put our mothers first, they don't have a lot to offer their babies. I didn't have anything to offer because I didn't experience it," Porter said.

Officials say this program works directly with the Leath Maternal-Child Health Unit at the Indiana Women's Prison in Indianapolis.

That's where Leah Hession works as a health care coordinator.

"So many of these women came from horrendous situations, and I don't care for the word 'rehabilitate' because to rehabilitate something is to bring it back to its former glory," Hession said. "So many of these women did not come from glory, but our job is to help empower them to find their inner strength and to find their self-esteem for themselves and for their children."

With her years of experience, Porter is also a member of the Mothers on the Rise team, serving as a lead community navigator for the women of the program.

"If they don't know what they are missing, if they don't know what a better life looks like, they don't really understand that it doesn't have to be what it is at that moment," Porter said.

Credit: Nina Porter

This initiative started in January 2019, according to Turman. With more than three years of experience, this team can now create individualized plans for all willing, incarcerated mothers at the Indiana Women's Prison.

"What's important is that it is individualized," Turman said of the voluntary program. "We honor every mother-baby pair as a unique, special, valued pair."

Part of those individualized plans is a social support system, starting inside the prison, but also connecting women to the community.

"When they get out into their home community, they need that positive social support system," Turman said. "We do not want them to go back to the social support system that kind of got them involved with the justice system in the first place."

"Nobody wakes up saying, 'I'm going to be a bad mom today,'" Porter said.

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Organizers say women also have access to quality of life and community integration curriculum to help them better understand what to expect. That is led by program administrator Ashley Mager.

"It's just a shame that women around the country and the state don't have the same opportunities as the women in the Leath Unit that we serve do," program administrator Ashley Mager said.

Mager has been with Mothers on the Rise since the beginning. Over the past three years, some of her experiences have led to the courtroom, where she fights for the individual rights of the women and their babies.

One instance happened in November 2021, where Mager's fight allowed a mother to stay with her baby, rather than spending an additional six months in jail.

"Later that day, she got to go home with her baby boy," Mager said. "It was very special, and now he has celebrated his first birthday with her in her home and his first Christmas."

As a part of Mothers on the Rise, each mother-baby pair also receives up to $1,000 in supplies, like clothes and hygiene products.

"Whatever she needs to be a successful, equipped mom," Turman said.

So far, organizers say the program has helped at least 16 mother-baby pairs from across the state, which has opened their eyes to the possibility of what is to come.

"It's important to know that the most rapidly-growing prison population in our country are women, and two-thirds of those women are mothers," Turman said. "Often when they get released, they have motherhood responsibilities, and we see them as mothers and women, not as women who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated, and we want to really help advance that narrative across the country."

It's a narrative Porter rewrote for her family in 2011.

"My experience before was hopelessness," Porter said. "My experience after, I live instead of exist."

Credit: Nina Porter

Staff like Mager know how important it is to have Porter's experience leading the program.

"We wouldn't be here without her," Mager said. "There is just no way around that fact. There would be 16 moms without the support they have if she was not here."

"At the end of the day, I am a mother on the rise," Porter said. "I connect with them where they are when it's not 'nine to five' in scenario-based ways. I am living it. I have lived it."

Organizers say while this job has no set hours or handbook, it is a job they look forward to every day.

"I'm incredibly blessed to do what I do," Hession said.

She said her staff often hears from mothers who have graduated from the program, making their job even more rewarding.

"We get emails and cards with pictures of the kids as they are growing, and it's hard to believe that you were there walking mom through her pregnancy journey, and now you are watching her kids go off to their first day of pre-school. It's such a wonderful feeling," Hession said.

Turman said two things keep him fighting every day: the Mothers on the Rise team and the women.

"Every woman matters," Turman said. "Every baby matters. Period."

Turman said this project is made possible thanks to funding from the Indiana State Department of Health, Riley Children's Foundation and donors who support women empowerment.

Porter, Turman, Hession and Mager said they have goals to expand Mothers on the Rise to reach more families in more community around the state of the Indiana and the United States. 

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