From the moment a woman and her infant arrive at the Santa Maria Hostel in Houston, Liz Moore works to break a cycle—the cycle of incarceration.
“I’ve always believed in rehabilitation—and that somebody can change,” said Moore, a UTMB Correctional Managed Care employee and program manager of the Baby and Mother Bonding Initiative (BAMBI). “My work with the BAMBI program has reinforced that belief. By giving these moms the opportunity to change their lives—particularly at this vulnerable time in their lives—greatly reduces the odds of their children becoming criminals themselves. These are high-risk populations.”
Moore helped start the BAMBI program in 2010 as a collaboration between UTMB and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The program provides eligible, nonviolent female offenders the opportunity to live and bond with their newborn babies, instead of sending the infants to family or foster care. (Eligibility is contingent upon the child being delivered during the course of their sentence.)
Up to 15 women are housed at the Santa Maria Hostel—a substance abuse treatment center where they can stay until their sentences are over, which is usually under a year. The secure residential facility looks and feels more like a college dormitory than a prison, with offenders and their babies sharing two-bedroom apartments.
Along with baby bonding, Moore and a BAMBI case manager help each woman prepare for a successful future, whether that means planning for college after they are released from prison or finding affordable housing so they can live independently. Women and their infants also take part in routine sessions such as group therapy, child development training and GED classes.
“I’m so proud of the women. Some have never finished anything,” said Moore. “To finally have that sense of achievement, it opens a whole new world for them. It lifts all that shame and worthlessness feelings to ‘Wow, I can do this.’”
Celia Enriquez has been in BAMBI with her daughter, Ariabella, since she was born in February. Already pregnant when she was sentenced for drug charges, Enriquez went to prison scared about the future. But she said getting into BAMBI was the first step in the right direction. She now looks forward to her June release date and life after prison—free from meth addiction, which she has battled since she was 12 years old. The whole experience has made her committed to change.
“Being able to bond with my daughter and wake up with her every day knowing that she is right there with me has made me realize how special every moment is,” said Enriquez. “It’s been a really hard journey. To know that my daughter did time with me, that we did it together—it means a lot.”
Since BAMBI started in 2010, the program has graduated 218 women and has seen a recidivism rate much lower than the national average.
“The baby bonding and attachment is proving to be beneficial,” said Moore. “Our recidivism rate is 13 percent, which is just phenomenal.”
In comparison, the most recent Bureau of Justice Statistics study found about 68 percent of prisoners released in 30 states in 2005 were rearrested within three years.
Moore is encouraged by each success story, which proves that many of the women are internalizing the lessons and skills they learn at BAMBI.
“We had two moms test for their GED today and I’m sure they did really well,” she said. “And I just got an email from a graduate who just got pinned with her LVN, and another email from a graduate who just got her certificate for appraising properties. Our initial babies who were with us in 2010 have started school—that’s unbelievable. I want them all to come back for a reunion. The support and comradery they built with one another is incredible.”
The BAMBI program continues to evolve. For the past year and a half, UTMB’s School of Nursing has collaborated with the program, matching SON students with BAMBI offenders for seven weeks, starting before the baby is born through labor, delivery and the postpartum phase. Recently awarded a UTMB President’s Cabinet Award, the project seeks to improve maternal bonding through student-led educational sessions that will improve the mother’s knowledge of prenatal health and infant care.