AshLee Shipton-Harrison, of Emmitsburg, said she wrote letters to her young daughters while she was in jail.
She told them about where she was, that she was trying to get better.
“I would be very assuring that I loved them, that it wasn’t their fault,” she said.
Shipton-Harrison was sentenced for theft to 18 months in jail split between the Frederick County Adult Detention Center and the Washington County Detention Center. She said she had become addicted to heroin and had run out of money.
In the Frederick County jail, she found a parenting class run by the organization Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership. It was in that class that she found help writing letters to her girls amid other sessions about good parenting both from the detention center and when she returned home.
Shari Ostrow Scher, the organization’s founder and president, leads the weekly class for women inmates that spans eight sessions called “Parenting From Afar” at the Frederick County Detention Center. The classes are just one piece of the organization’s work.
Among its efforts for children whose parents are incarcerated, the charity provides weekend activities, resource baggies and books. It also offers scholarships, speaking engagements and other resources for the children’s temporary caregivers.
The organization is one of 19 local nonprofits participating in the Unity Campaign for Frederick County, a fundraising effort annually in September. The organization will put the money it receives toward activities and educational programs for children and temporary caregivers, as well as the parenting class, according to the campaign website.
Women who complete the class receive a certificate from her organization, Scher said. The detention center also deducts several days from inmates’ sentences for completing the class successfully.
The class covers multiple topics, from discipline to emotions to cooperation, and addresses parenting from birth to the high school years. Scher said participants have included not only mothers but also grandmothers and women hoping to learn skills to care for younger siblings.
The sessions involve open discussion, not her telling them how to do something, said Scher, who works with fellow teacher Cathy Anderson. The women help each other and brainstorm how to address certain situations.
Scher said that, for the women she works with, issues such as drug addiction, alcohol addiction, or wanting more than they have can lead to bad choices. But she doesn’t question how the women feel about their children.
“I truly believe the women I work with love their children,” she said.
Each woman is unique, Scher said, but she has often seen women experiencing frustration, shame and disappointment because they’re not with their children. Women are sometimes afraid that their children will start thinking of their temporary caregivers as their mother.
Through the class, she said, she has seen women gain confidence in their parenting abilities, become stronger and apply what they have learned to solve problems.
Scher starts each session with real-life scenarios that happen or could happen, and sometimes the women inmates themselves bring them up. She helps the participants to work through each of them. She might describe a scenario such as a caregiver calling them to say that their two young children are fighting nonstop. Another situation could be a child visiting the jail who is angry and doesn’t want to talk.
They talk about other ways to communicate with children beyond jailhouse visits, such as through letters or keeping a journal that they share later with their kids.
The classes include handouts tied to the different topics that offer tips, child development information, and information about how to handle specific situations with their kids, Scher said. For a class’s final meeting, she brings in a range of books that the women can select for their children, covering subjects tied to their discussions.
Each session of the class ends with prepaid postcards for the women to fill out. Scher says they brainstorm about positive messages the women can send to their children.
“Just regular people”
Shipton-Harrison said that, in addition to her letters, the class offered other ideas for interacting with her daughters. Some activities could be mailed back and forth. The women made recordings of themselves reading a book that their children could listen to, for example.
The communication with her daughters helped during a time when they went through a lot. “They wrote me all the time and sent me pictures,” she said.
Scher is “absolutely amazing,” Shipton-Harrison said, with a great sense of humor and full of energy. She created a comfortable environment. “She looks at us like we’re just regular people,” she said. “She didn’t see the orange and white.”
Shipton-Harrison said Scher also prepared the women for the reality that, during their time in jail, “the world is still spinning.”
The class aims to help women think about life after jail, a transition that is challenging as they tackle various responsibilities and often find things have changed since they entered jail, Scher said.
Since she was released from the Washington County detention center in November, Shipton-Harrison has been working to regain custody of her daughters, who are currently with her mother and sister. She recently got her own place and got married. She’s been clean for almost two years.
Scher said she saw Shipton-Harrison taking the class discussions to heart and write wonderful letters to her children. Shipton-Harrison would glow when she talked about her children.
“I thought she really did a lot of self reflection and planning for being the best mommy she could be when she got out,” she said.
Responding to anger
Elizabeth King said she joined the class — which she decided to take twice — to develop her parenting skills. After struggling with an addiction to pain medication and seeing her three children go into foster care, she said, she felt she had “done some things wrong” with her parenting.
“I didn’t have the best upbringing,” she said, an experience that influenced how she had raised her children.
King was sentenced in March after she violated her probation. Her 18-month sentence was modified and she’s now in a treatment center.
Her experience in the class helped prepare her for a visit with her 5-year-old daughter, who was “extremely angry” she was in jail, King said. She said she gave a response she wouldn’t have been able to give without Scher’s guidance. She explained to her daughter that she could talk to King, her dad, her foster mom and her older brother. That conversation helped.
“She asked if I was still her best friend, I said of course I was,” she said.
From the class’ discussions on self-esteem for children, King said, she learned the importance of telling her daughter that she was beautiful no matter what and not projecting her own self-esteem issues on her.
Scher described King as a confident person who clearly loved her children. King has maturity beyond her years, Scher said, and was able to offer insight during the class about discipline, telling children the truth and working with a caregiver.
For King, Scher’s role as a teacher was key.
“She’s really a great person and a great human being,” she said.