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Therapy Program Brings Incarcerated Mothers and Children Together for the Holidays

Courtesy Utah Department of Corrections
Inmates Daniella Ruiz and Haylee Cheek prepare gifts for their children before a holiday party.

Santa Claus made an appearance at the Timpanogos Women’s Correctional Facility in Draper this year. It’s part of a therapeutic program for incarcerated parents and their children.

If it weren’t for the uniforms, the guards, and the many locked doors, this circle of women could be a knitting group. Right now they are showing off the gifts they’ve made for their children. One woman is still putting the finishing touches on a pink and white crocheted blanket for her youngest daughter.

Before the Christmas party, where some of these moms will get to see their children, they have a therapy session with a mental health counselor. It’s all part of the Family Psychology Program that’s aimed at helping incarcerated parents work on relationship skills and develop a bond with their children again. It doesn’t take long for the tissue box to come out, as they delve into feelings of shame, inadequacy, and the pain of watching their children grow up without them. Haylee Cheek has been in prison for more than five years. Her children are now 7, 9 and 14.

“This is the first Christmas that I’ve actually been able to hand them a gift, so I feel like I’m part of Christmas this year,” Cheek says. “I’m a little nervous. I made their blankets… so they have them just to hold. I just hope that it helps them to get through the nights.”

Cheek says she landed in prison after one bad night at a party with multiple charges involving drugs, robbery, and firearms. When Cheek first got there, visits with her children were limited. “They’d be standing on a little shelf, and they’d put their hands against the glass, you know. And they’d kiss me through the glass, but it’s unbelievable how alienated you feel when you really haven’t touched your children or been able to openly talk to them or just wipe their tear away… it really makes you feel like a stranger.”

Now, because of this program, that’s changed. When the children arrive for the Christmas party, Cheek can’t stop touching them. She strokes their hair, inspects their ear piercings and their teeth. When Santa arrives, he gets everyone singing, which seems to dispel any remaining shyness. He hands out presents, and Cheek’s youngest daughter wraps herself in the pink and white blanket.

“It smells like my mom who made it for me,” she says. Santa even gets the teenagers to sit on his lap. Cheek’s oldest daughter tells him all she wants for Christmas is her mother to come home.

Lieutenant Jennifer Stansfield says the mothers have a lot of work to do to prepare them for that day when they do get out and resume those parental responsibilities.

“They’re learning how to be parents because when they get out they’re going to have to parent them full time, and when you’ve not parented and you get out, you don’t know what to do,” Stansfield says. “It’s like being a brand new parent for the first time, only you’ve got bigger kids who actually already have issues.”

Cheek still has a couple more years of time to do. When she does get out, she will likely go to a halfway house, and she knows that she will have to prove herself to get more time with her children. Once released, Cheek will be offered three free therapy sessions to complete the final phase of the program. Prison officials say the Family Psychology Program will be expanded to the Promontory Facility in January.

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