What is the Jail Project? Q and A: The Center’s Innovative Project for Incarcerated Women

Ten years ago, the Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law created one of the only family law education programs for incarcerated women in the U.S.

1.What is the jail project?

We provide information about dependency, family and probate law to mothers at Century Regional Detention Facility (CRDF), Inglewood and Twin Towers downtown, with an emphasis on factors affecting child custody to allow them to make more informed decisions and personal choices relating to the welfare, safety and security of their children and themselves.

2. How long has the Center been teaching at the women’s jail?

Since 2004, when it began as a pilot project in Twin Towers.

3. How many different classes are there?

Currently we are teaching three different programs, all with a unique focus. Class 1 focuses on Dependency Court (Children’s Court) including custody issues and the legal concept of “in the best interest of the child.” Class 2 focuses on domestic violence, life skills and health. Class 3 focuses on paternity and child support.

4. How many instructors do we have for the jail project and what are their names?

Currently, we have four instructors and four assistants presenting the classes. They are Holly Leonard, Elizabeth Erickson, Alexis Kelly, Columbia Law Student Fellow Chelsea Salem, Isabel Tovar (pictured left, back row, from left to right), Wendy Garcia, Karina Estrella and Melissa Adams. (Pictured left, front row, from left to right.)

5. What does each class emphasize?

The Dependency Court class helps them understand the time-frames and other important legal processes. Why Dependency Court exists, how it operates, how judges make custody decisions in Dependency Court, how long parents have to complete their service plans and correct their actions, the effect of drugs, alcohol, mental health, domestic violence and other problems on parents’ rights to custody of their children, what can happen in a Dependency Court case including termination of parental rights, and some community resources in Los Angeles that can help parents.

The class on domestic violence helps them understanding how the cycle of violence works; the different types of domestic violence; how domestic violence, drugs, alcohol and mental health problems affect the welfare of children and custody decisions by the courts; how to get a restraining order; how to obtain resources in the community including places to live and to stop domestic violence in a family.

The class on paternity and child support helps them understand their parental rights and responsibilities under the laws of California. What is paternity and why it is important; how paternity can be established in California including the Voluntary Declaration of Paternity, presumptions and blood tests; getting custody and visitation and restraining orders in a paternity case, who has to pay and who is entitled to child support; why support may be owed to the County of Los Angeles;  the consequences of not paying child support; some community resources to help parents establish paternity and collect child support, and respond to the County when they want payment.

6. What are some of the common questions the attendees ask?

  • Why their child got taken away if there was no abuse to the child?
  • Why does the System take too long to give the child back?
  • Why they are not given more time in Dependency Court?
  • Why do very young children get adopted out so quickly?
  • Based on the movie Losing Isiah, is it true I can get my child back after adoption?
  • How can I get custody of my child back?
  • How do I get my child’s father to pay child support?
  • How do I stop child support while I am here?
  • Why do I have to pay child support if my child was taken away?


7. How do the classes help the attendees?

They help assure access to the courts by educating incarcerated women about the Dependency Court process and reinforcing the importance of participating in that process. We also connect eligible women with a Friends Outside advocate to help make contact with Children’s Court attorneys and social workers as well as provide women with resources about where to get help with family law matters when released.

They help by educating the noncustodial parents about child support, reviewing individual child support papers and explain what the papers say, giving attendees resources about child support assistance from the Family Law Facilitator and providing them with resources about signing-up for public benefits before they leave the jail through the help of the Sheriff’s Department Community Transition Unit.

They help stop domestic violence by educating women about domestic violence and how it affects children. We tell women the step-by-step process of how to get a restraining order and where to get help to get a restraining order and we provide resources for domestic violence law clinics, shelters and outpatient services.

The classes also promote self-advocacy by educating women about their legal rights and responsibilities as parents, teaching women how to contact and communicate with the DCFS social worker and helping them understand what actions they need to take to legally protect their relationship with their children

8. What are the results of the classes?

The classes help build self-esteem through certificates and recognition. The knowledge of the family, probate and dependency court systems gives them a better understanding the situations affecting their life, how to deal with them and the confidence to do it competently. The knowledge and tools given help them access community resources upon release from custody and reduce their sense of hopelessness, isolation and depression.

Another significant result is that the inmates lose the perception that everyone is there to mess them up.  They understand their role as a parent and take responsibility for their part in having their child taken away, it’s no longer “they took my kid away” but rather “I messed up and I need to fix this for my kid.” Some have reported their reunification services were reopened because of what they told the judge they learned from our classes.

They often recognize there is abuse in their relationship and how it is affecting the child.  Often they realize they too have learned the abusive behavior and are exhibiting tactics of power and control over their new partner.  I often see women cry when they come to realize they have not only been victims but they have in some way become the abusers in another relationship. Some women have reported that the criminal court Judge told them the knowledge they attained met the 52 week batterer program that they were supposed to attend.

They understand the complicated issues behind paternity; what the child custody decisions are based on; the fact that they are not final and can be modified if they change their lives around.  They understand the importance of child support and that it is in the best interest of the child that they contribute and how to make the order something they can manage and stop the consequences.  This is the class that makes them start cheering as it applies to all of them.  There are so many misconceptions about paternity and child support that they are actually relieved after this class.