Ministry offering pregnant inmates healthy home, close relationship with their babies

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Pregnant inmates at Indian’s Women’s Prison are choosing to give an area ministry temporary custody of their babies until they are released. The Stepping Stones Prison Baby Ministry out of Oden, Ind., is promising more contact than a mother would get if her child was in state custody.

“She’s getting to where she plays with her toys,” said Michelle Wittmer, a caregiver with the ministry.

She is an RN who has been taking care of a baby for several months from her home in a rural community that is made up of mostly Amish and Mennonite families more than 90 miles outside of Indianapolis.

The baby’s mother, Anne Van Wagner, is serving time at the prison for welfare fraud and receiving stolen property.

“We’re only here to help. We’re only here to help if they ask,” said Joe Knepp, the man behind Stepping Stones Prison Baby Ministry.

He was talking about women who end up behind bars pregnant. It is considered a high-risk pregnancy.

Some inmates do have access to the Wee Ones Nursery Program that got off the ground in 2008. Women with non-violent offenses and sentences not more than 18 months long after the time they are expected to deliver can keep their child with them in prison.

There are 38 women in the unit. That includes mothers, mothers-to-be and nannies, or other inmates who have chosen to help take care of the babies as their job in prison.

“I think it’ll be a big change when we get home. It’s something that he’s going to have to get used,” said Tequilla Wright, an inmate who is in the program.

“The purpose is to bond with their baby, spend time with their baby, and for them to be the primary parent from the get-go if at all possible,” said Allison Green, a staff member with Indiana’s Women’s Prison.

The inmates are who are not eligible for the Wee Ones Nursery Program and do not have family they trust can elect to have an abortion, choose adoption, hand their child over to the state or go with Stepping Stones.

“Where with CPS they don’t have that contact, mom knows where the child is and mom has contact with the caregivers. There are a lot of benefits,” said Knepp.

Van Wagner gets weekly letters and plenty of photos of her little girl from Wittmer, who was first invited to visit Wagner when she was expecting. Weeks later, she would fill out a lengthy application and sign a power of attorney granting people who she hoped she could trust temporary custody of her baby.

“I can focus on myself. I can concentrate on things that I need to do to get out of here without the anxiety and the worry of ‘Is my baby being taken care? Are they attending to her when she cries and when she’s hungry?'” said Van Wagner.

Knepp said Stepping Stones uses a registered nurse who makes unannounced visits, and while CPS promises background checks, the community instead chooses to rely on their close-knit relationships and their ministers’ opinions.

“There has been 14 mothers, and with a couple of those, there were siblings,” said Knepp.

The ministry does not ask the mothers for anything. The community helps each other with clothes if needed, and the caretakers get some support from state programs if they need it.

Knepp said he does this kind of work because the Bible says that you should help those less fortunate. He also believes they can have a long-lasting impact on mom and baby.

“It doesn’t work every time, but if we can help one, it’s worth it,” said Knepp.

That is the hope for Van Wanger whose release date is expected in February.

“I think about it everyday, and it brings tears to my eyes sometimes having to give her back,” said Wittmer.

Still, she said is preparing for the day she has to return the baby to her mother whether it be in a few months or longer.

Prison officials said Van Wagner still has a federal probation violation charge pending.

“Because of them, my baby knows who I am,” said Van Wagner. “They’re people I want a part of my life.”

In two instances, the caregivers have been asked by the mothers to adopt their children after they have been released from prison, believing their baby would be better off in that home.