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Surrogate parents

New Horizons builds relationship triangles with prisoners and their newborn children

Surrogate parents

(James Allen Walker for WORLD)

CAÑON CITY, Colo.-Fremont County, Colo., is proud of its prisons. The county has 13 of them, nine state and four federal institutions that communities like Cañon City welcome for the boost they bring to the local economies. The prisoners, bused in under guard, serve their terms and upon release return to the state's urban centers. For Cañon City, in the foothills south of Pike's Peak, prisoners represent wealth: They bring in dollars and take their problems back home with them.

Some non-prison people also come to Cañon City, serve their terms, and go home-but in the process they help female prisoners keep their families together. Every year, young Mennonite men and women come from the Midwest to Colorado and care for the infant children of incarcerated women.

That story began in 1990, when Loren Miller took a one-year leave of absence from his job at a Bible college in Pennsylvania. He moved his family to Colorado, obeying a call from God. It was no more specific than that, just a small, still voice in his heart telling him that Colorado needed him. So he began to look for a mission. He learned that when a woman gives birth while incarcerated, Colorado, like most states, automatically places her children in foster care. Since the deadline for reclaiming their children typically falls while the mothers are still in custody, most will never have the chance to be reunited with their babies. Thinking there's a better way, Miller founded New Horizons Ministry as a Mennonite mission.

In 1991 the ministry took power of attorney over its first infant. Since then it has cared for over 142 children. Now, when a mother gives birth in prison, she signs a power of attorney to New Horizons, and the baby's nanny, typically a 19- or 20-year-old, picks up the baby the same day. The infant is raised in a loving, Christian home. The nanny and baby visit the mother in prison every week, giving the mother a chance to see her baby grow. Upon release, the baby is returned to the mother, giving mother and child a second chance at being a family.

The nannies are not on their own: They live together under the supervision of house parents such as Merv and Barb Helmuth. Merv Helmuth is in his 50s, a retired electrician from Iowa. All of his own children are grown, so it's easy to see why, even after 16 months in Colorado, he's still amused to be once again living in a house of infants: "It feels like starting over again, being around all these small children."

I visited with the Helmuths at "Hannahs House," in Penrose, Colo., a half hour from Cañon City. The Helmuths live here with their daughter Karen and Harmony Headings, two of New Horizon's nannies. Seen sitting around the dining room table, with Merv's neatly trimmed gray beard (no mustache) and the women's head coverings, they could be a traditional Mennonite family . . . except for the three Hispanic babies sitting on laps or in high chairs. This is a New Horizons nuclear family.

The young women are the primary caregivers for 18-month-old Samuel, 13-month-old Angel, and 7-month-old Isaiah. Every Wednesday the household loads into a van and makes the two-hour drive to the Denver Women's Correctional Facility to visit the babies' moms. These visits are central to the New Horizons mission, which is to keep families together and give the women ties to the outside world that will help to keep them from re-offending.

Prisoners eagerly await the visits that give them a chance to hold and feed their babies. The nannies also anticipate them: "I never thought I could love a prisoner the way I do Samuel's mom," Karen Helmuth says. "A lot of these moms have never felt love."

This is the relationship triangle at the heart of the New Horizons work. Nannies care for children, giving them love and attention at a crucial time in their development. Nannies and house parents mentor prisoners, loving them while teaching them about parenting. A prisoner gets a chance to love her child in a secure environment, knowing that not only will the child be waiting for her upon release, but that a New Horizons extended family will help her through the reintegration process.

Angel, 13 months old, is sound asleep in his high chair, all his energy devoted to digesting his just-eaten slice of cake. His mother, already released, is finding it tough on the outside, and Merv and Barb have stepped in to help care for Angel while his mom tries to get her act together. The Mennonite emphasis on family explains why so many are willing to leave their homes "back East" and come to Colorado.

"It's hard enough giving up your children to be married, but having to give up a newborn to a stranger. I can't relate to that, I can't imagine it," Barb Helmuth says. "So when I'm caring for a child, I try to be the same role model that I would want to be for my own children."

And after a year or more of caring for a child, it can be just as difficult for a nanny to hand the baby back to its mother. Joana Beachy, a nanny at Polly's Place, another New Horizons facility, still remembers the day she picked up "her" baby from the prison hospital: "I remind myself everyday that they aren't my children. You just have to keep reminding yourself, and trust that God will give you the grace to let go. It's not something that's going to be easy."

In the early years, Department of Corrections regulations stated that the child would be handed back to the mother immediately upon release, with additional regulations limiting prison volunteers from initiating contact with released inmates. So when a mother was released, she collected her child and moved on, often leaving New Horizons behind. But through years of working diligently with the state, New Horizons has been able to relax those rules. Now mothers entering the program sign a contract that gives New Horizons the ability to reintegrate the child slowly into the mother's life.

Reintegration starts with outside visits, then moves up to overnight visits before eventually the mother takes full custody. The mother must demonstrate that she has reliable housing, employment, and childcare before she can take full custody, and New Horizons is there with her every step of the way. New Horizons has become a licensed Child Placement Agency, allowing it to place a child into more permanent foster care, or even adoption, should the birth mother's situation warrant it.

Miller, the ministry's founder and still its executive director, calls this new phase of New Horizons ministry "completing the circle." New Horizons has recently opened a new facility called The Oasis, where mothers can regain their footing away from bad influences in their home towns. There they live with house parents, and eventually with their own children, attending Bible studies and parenting classes, learning how to be a family again. "We need to break the kind of thinking they take into prison," Miller says.

The last arc of the circle is the New Horizons thrift store, in downtown Cañon City. The facility and its sister branch in Penrose raise money for the ministry but also provide jobs for recently released mothers. Sherelle Brown works at the thrift store alongside Mennonite volunteers.

Brown gave birth to her son Macaiah in the Denver Women's Correctional Facility. When she found out she was pregnant, she was serving a three-year sentence for theft and possession of a controlled substance. Macaiah lived with a New Horizons nanny while Brown served 28 months of her sentence: The weekly visits with Macaiah helping her stay focused on her release. She was paroled before The Oasis opened, but New Horizons staff found her a residential program in Cañon City and gave her a job at the thrift store.

"[Without New Horizons] I'd probably be back in prison. I didn't have to walk all by myself," Brown says. "Nine times out of 10, I'd be back in jail." Now she has full-time custody of Macaiah (though the Helmuths still occasionally babysit him) and is taking classes in Medical Billing and Coding at a technical school: "I never thought I'd be telling my brother about my college classes. Usually when you get out of prison, you have to start all over. I wish a lot of other people could have the same opportunity."

With her family intact, Brown is looking toward her future. "I want to get a house, get a career established." She grins and points at the store manager, Nelson Hoover, who sold his construction business to run New Horizons' thrift stores: "I want Nelson's job!"

To view a video profile of New Horizons and of each of the other 2010 regional finalists and to read profiles of finalists and winners from 2006 through 2009, visit compassion.

New Horizons Factbox

Location: Cañon City, Colo.

Founded: 1991

Mission: Prison ministry, inmate rehabilitation, short- and long-term foster care

Annual Budget: $425,000

Website: www.newhorizonsministries.net

Daniel Olasky

Daniel Olasky