Jonah’s Journey

April 8, 2014

Working together, more children in need of safe, loving homes will find refuge with families equipped to care for them.The statistics about the fate of children of incarcerated mothers are both troubling and difficult to interpret. Some sources, like the Texas Department of Corrections, cite research that indicates that those children are five times more likely to also end up in prison, while others, like the National Conference of State Legislatures, disagree that such numbers can be empirically proved, given the other complex factors that are also often involved with the families of origin of those who are incarcerated: single-parent homes, drug abuse, mental health issues, and poverty.

However, all the sources seem to agree on one major point: children of incarcerated parents are exposed to greater sociological risk factors than children without incarcerated parents and that they also seem to display greater tendencies toward depression that manifests itself as behavioral problems which often leads to trouble in surrogate homes and schools.

Fortunately, the sources also agree on a more positive point. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures article “Children of Incarcerated Parents”: “Research suggests that intervening in the lives of incarcerated parents and their children to preserve and strengthen positive family connections can yield positive social benefits in the form of reduced recidivism, less intergenerational criminal justice system involvement, and promotion of healthy child development.”

In other words, no one’s arguing that having a parent, particularly a mother, in prison doesn’t have a devastating impact on a child’s life. But the good news is that if positive interventions occur at the right time and in the right ways, change is possible. Prisoners who are able to maintain positive connections with their children are less likely to go back to prison once released and also less likely to have parole violations. Children of those prisoners who receive good care and are encouraged to maintain positive connections with their parents are less likely to be sent to prison as adults.

One of the most common forms of intervention for incarcerated mothers is that their children end up in state-run foster care. While this is often better than some of the alternatives, foster care has its own challenges, not the least of which is that children are frequently moved from home to home, disrupting any stable connections they may have formed. Additionally, many mothers have themselves had negative experiences with foster care, including frequent cases of abuse and neglect. When presented with an alternative, therefore, they are often happy to pursue it.

One of those happy alternatives began seven years ago in Nashville after a prison chaplain approached LeAllison Whittinghill about taking care of a baby who would be born soon to a pregnant mother who was incarcerated. That baby’s name was Jonah, and soon after taking him in, LeAllison and her husband, who were already the parents of four school-age children, found their eyes and hearts open in a way they didn’t anticipate.

That was the beginning of Jonah’s Journey, born of a vision that LeAllison and her husband developed with the encouragement of prison chaplain Linda Knott. LeAllison began volunteering at the prison on a weekly basis. During that time, she realized that the only option for women who gave birth in prison was state-run foster care. After much prayer, she decided to try to give those women a better option. So she began meeting with pregnant mothers and trying to help them place their children in safe, healthy homes where the mothers could still maintain some positive connections with their children until they were released. Often babies are brought to their mothers once a week for visits.

In the seven years since LeAllison founded the ministry, over one hundred babies have been lovingly tended by the volunteers at Jonah’s Journey.

Although Jonah’s Journey is not specifically an adoption ministry, several of those babies have also found forever homes in the arms of their caretakers. One of those homes belongs to Jonah’s Journey director, Lisa Herren, who adopted her little girl Taylor after being exposed to Jonah’s Journey initially through her Sunday School teacher at Longhollow Church in Nashville. That teacher had been tending a Jonah’s Journey baby who had some severe respiratory issues.

As an ER nurse, Lisa frequently helped her friend out with this baby and through that exposure, she and her husband eventually felt called not only to adopt their own baby through Jonah’s Journey but to become a part of working for the ministry. About two years ago, Lisa quit her job to begin working full-time for Jonah’s Journey.

In the last few months, LeAllison, Lisa, and the rest of their team have joined up with Palmer Home to provide logistical and organizational support as the demand for new families for Jonah’s Journey continues to increase.

According to Palmer Home CEO Drake Bassett, “Our mission is to help children in need and we’ve been looking for the right opportunity to extend our reach. Jonah’s Journey has demonstrated success in connecting children in need with a Christian home. That’s what we do.”

As this joint venture develops, I will be posting many stories about these wonderful families who, child by child and mother by mother, have given us all new reasons to hope in a better future.