NEW YORK—Like many other mothers who have served time, Johanna Flores will celebrate Mother’s Day on Sunday with family, hope for the future and deep appreciation for work she loves.
“It’s a day to demonstrate to people I care about, who have made a difference in my life, how special they are,” said Flores, 40, who served four years in prison 20 years ago on a drug-smuggling charge.
One of those people is Sister Tesa Fitzgerald, “mother” and mentor to thousands of women who have experienced prison and have rebuilt lives thanks to Hour Children, a self-described “provider of services to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women in New York State.”
“She believed in me before I believed in myself,” Flores said of Sister Fitzgerald, noting the important role mentors have in the lives of women who have been incarcerated.
The roots of Hour Children date back almost 40 years when Sister Fitzgerald, a native of the Far Rockaway section of the New York City borough of Queens, joined with four other members of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood, New York, to found a home in the borough for children with incarcerated mothers.
The sisters became, in effect, foster parents for the children, even accompanying the children on prison visits.
Sister Fitzgerald soon realized the ministry had to expand. The mothers needed support when they were released so they could make the transition to productive lives.
The significance of the program’s name stems from the various hours children experience: the hour a mother is arrested, the hour the children are allowed to visit their mothers in prison, and the hour a mother is released, Sister Fitzgerald said.
In 2022, Hour Children will mark 30 years since it was incorporated in 1992. Sister Fitzgerald, 73, is still at the helm — lovingly and exuberantly — and not resting on laurels that include being named the 2014 laureate of the Opus Prize, 2013 White House Champion of Change and a CNN Hero in 2012.
She said about 6,000 people “have called us home over the decades, and countless have utilized our services and support in various ways, inside and out.”
Interviewed in late April when she and her staff were settling in to the realities of working amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Sister Fitzgerald expressed deep concern about the pandemic but betrayed no worry about the ministry’s prospects or about the determination of the mothers she works with.
“It’s not been an easy time,” she told the Global Sisters Report. “Our child care program has stopped for the moment, but other programs have moved online. And our social workers are working harder than ever.”
Sister Fitzgerald said she sees the organization’s work as a needed balm.
“The prison system is broken, and we need to be honest about it,” Sister Fitzgerald said, though she is quick to add that there are “many, many people” who work within the prison system who are humane and try to affirm the dignity of those incarcerated.
Hour Children includes prison visits among its programs, but it also runs three thrift shops in Queens, transitional housing for former prisoners in six communal homes and three apartment houses, a food pantry and an infant nursery. It also provides mentoring for prisoners’ children and employment training for women who have left prison.
The walls of Sister Fitzgerald’s office are filled with numerous framed photographs of mothers and children she has known. Each tells “a story of wonderful, wonderful families who have shared their lives with us,” she said.
A few photographs evoke memories tinged with sadness. Sister Fitzgerald looked across her desk and pointed to a photograph of one young woman named Stephanie, who was doing well after serving time for a drug charge. She won acclaim as a public speaker sharing her experiences in prison and seemed to be “extremely committed to rebuilding her life,” Fitzgerald said.
But after two years, Stephanie moved back in with her mother, got involved with drugs once again and died of a drug overdose. The influence of her mother and a man contributed to Stephanie’s troubles, Sister Fitzgerald said, adding that Stephanie did not grow up in a loving family.
“A lot of the women can’t relate to a loving, nurturing mother, and they all want that,” she said, noting that Stephanie herself was a loving mother.
The staff includes two mothers have been incarcerated: Kellie Phelan, 46, who coordinates volunteer and child and teen mentoring programs, and Sarah Murphy, 37, who works as an office manager.
Phelan, who turned herself in to authorities in July of 2007 knowing she faced drug possession charges, spent 90 days at Riker’s Island, New York City’s main jail facility, and even gave birth to her daughter Savannah, now age 12, at a jail ward at a Queens hospital. She was already a mother to another daughter, Brittanie, now 28.
A native of Syracuse, New York, Murphy also was incarcerated while pregnant and, like Phelan, got to know Hour Children when she was at a prison nursery with her now-2-year-old, Vinnie. Murphy served a two-year sentence for counterfeiting and was released in December 2018. She lives in one of the organization’s transitional housing units.
Many of the women Hour Children helps, including Flores, eventually flourish as mothers themselves.
“I look at them and say, ‘Wow,'” Sister Fitzgerald said, adding that at the end of the day, “there are many stories of success.”
Hour Children programs are intended to focus on that success, and most women “step up to the challenges” of life after prison.
But the challenges are considerable. Many women have to repair broken or severed family relationships, especially with their children — though some women don’t see their kids again. That’s largely because “the children get lost” to the foster care system, Sister Fitzgerald said. And sometimes, older children decide they “have to move on with their lives.”
“Rebuilding those family relationships has to be built on truth” — truth about the crime the woman went to prison for and how it harmed family relationships, Sister Fitzgerald said.
The women also face the challenges of trying to get a job, training for employment, preparing for job interviews.
“And men,” Sister Fitzgerald said with mock exasperation. “Some women think they can’t live without a man.”
In the quest to move forward, it is common for women to “want a job immediately,” said Flores, employment coordinator for Hour Children. “It’s a challenge at first.”
“What many of them don’t realize is that they really need training first,” she said. “Time, training and education.”
Proper training, she said, will ground them so they can aim for a career, not just a job.
The Hour Working Women Program is an employment and job-training program specifically designed to support those who have left prison with a limited education and little or no job experience, Flores said. This means they don’t have the marketable skills needed to reenter the community and resume responsibility for their children, often as single parents.
The program’s goal, Flores said, “is to provide the resources an individual needs to obtain and retain a livable wage job so that they can achieve self-sufficiency and provide for their family.”
Among the program’s components, she added, are training, educational opportunities such as preparation for the high school equivalency exam, internships, and job placement support. Since 2008, 550 women have participated in the program.
Central to Hour Children’s mission is this belief: Every person has the capacity for change, and all human beings are worthy of dignity and respect.
Women in prison know all about that, Sister Fitzgerald said.
“We’re talking about good people who made a bad choice,” she said. “Some of the best people I know have owned their mistakes. There’s a quality to them which is impressive and humbling.”
By Chris Herlinger