NASHVILLE, Tenn. - In many cases, pregnant women who end up in prison may be forced to turn their children over to foster care once they are born but one prison ministry program has stepped in to help.
The children of inmates often end up bouncing from home to home, and what's worse, they are much more likely to end up behind bars themselves. But a prison ministry program is trying to help pregnant inmates and their children in middle Tennessee avoid that outcome by giving the inmates a chance to get their child back once they serve their sentence.
"One thing about this program is [pregnant inmates] have hope that there may be a way they can parent this child," said LeAllison Whittinghill with Jonah's Journey ministry.
Lydia Judkins had been sentenced on meth charges, serving her time at the Tennessee Prison for Woman. She said she had no other choice but to forfeit her newborn baby girl Stella Ann to foster care, until she was approached by Jonah's Journey ministry.
"This has kind of opened up the door you know, opened my eyes up," said Lydia.
While Lydia stays in prison and focuses on GED and life skills classes, a caregiver paired by Jonah's Journey will watch after Stella, giving her the foundation she might otherwise go without, as part of a family.
For now, Stella is staying with Amy and Paul Hogg, a couple in Gallatin with two children of their own.
"We're just excited," Amy Hogg said the day she met Stella at the hospital for the first time. "We’ve been waiting a long time to be able to do something like this so it’s a great feeling."
As long as Lydia demonstrates good behavior in prison, Paul, Amy and Stella are able to visit with Lydia every other week, with the option for entire weekend visits later.
NewsChannel 5 was there three weeks after Stella's birth - the first time Lydia had gotten to see her since being born. The smile on Lydia's face was unmistakable.
"Seeing her is going to make my week, weekend, month so much better," Lydia said.
Whittinghill said the bi-weekly visits give women inmates a goal to aim for and a reason to keep improving, but beyond that, she said the program hopes to reform inmates positively.
"All of our women will eventually get out," Whittinghill said. "We have to love them in here, and on the outside. That’s the only way to help change who they are."
Lydia is eligible for parole in August. Jonah's Journey ministry said in seven years of operation, the group has helped more than 100 children, many of whom reunite with their mothers after they're released from prison.
For more information on Jonah's Journey, you can visit their website at jonahsjourney.org, email Lherren@jonahsjourney.org, or call 615-206-9099.