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Birth Behind Bars teaches pregnant Pasco County inmates to be capable mothers

LAND O'LAKES — Catrica Clifton slouched in a blue plastic chair, her stomach protruding over the band of her pants.

The doula slowly ran a fetal Doppler along Clifton's 20-weeks-pregnant belly to hear her baby's heartbeat: a strong 142 beats per minute.

"It's nice to hear," Clifton, 35, said with a grin.

Moms-to-be get glimpses of their unborn babies at doctors' offices every day. But these moms are behind bars, where prenatal care includes a twice-monthly class in a white-walled room in the lower level of the Land O'Lakes jail.

Most of the women here are excited, but some are uncertain about their futures because of legal troubles that complicate their ability to bond with their newborns.

The program, called Birth Behind Bars, was started at the jail by Janice Banther in 2001. She is one of two doulas — a Greek word that refers to a woman who cares for another woman — who oversee the program.

Banther also serves as executive director of For the Love of Birth Inc., a Tarpon Springs-based nonprofit that offers childhood education classes and doula services for disadvantaged women.

Anywhere between three and 10 women stop by the voluntary program at the jail.

Seated at a trio of round silver tables, the women, wearing orange and white striped jumpsuits, work through a yellow handbook Banther created called I'm Pregnant, Now What Do I Do? The pages provide insight and drawings on things like bodily changes during pregnancy, and coping with pain and dilation during labor.

Beige beanbags with black outlines of a baby's body sit in chairs that line the room's walls. Each bag represents a baby's weight and length at different weeks. The other side of the bag lists how much the baby weighs and how long the baby would be, and information on fetal development.

The women are also taught to prepare for labor day. They will be taken to a hospital outside the jail. One ankle and one wrist will be shackled to the bed before they give birth. The shackles are taken off once labor begins.

A family member or the baby's father will take the baby home.

About 160 women have gone through the program since it began, Banther said.

"Our main goal is to change the mother's lifestyle," said Banther, who volunteers her time for the class. "One of our doulas goes to the hospital and stays the entire time she's in labor."

Banther also talks about nutrition with the women, who are allowed an additional daily snack while pregnant in jail.

"We encourage them to eat well," she said. "While they are in here, they aren't getting fast foods and fat."

After being released from jail, Banther said, some of the women contact Banther to thank her for educating them on child-rearing.

"Some people say it changed their life," she said. "We try to give them those skills because we don't want frequent fliers in the Pasco County jail."

Of the six woman who met on Friday, half were pregnant with their first baby.

That included Amanda Beth Schlemmermeyer, 18, who has been in jail since July on petty theft charges.

She is due Sept. 27, and plans to name her child Hunter. She hopes to apply she skills she's learning in Banther's class to his care.

"The class is helping me understand what to expect," she said. "It made me happy to hear his heartbeat."

Clifton, who has been in jail since July for battery on a law enforcement officer, is due Jan. 14. She thinks her child's heart rate indicates she's having a boy. She is so sure, she hasn't picked out any girl names.

For now, she's preparing herself for baby Brandon or Anthony. It will be her fourth child. Her two oldest children are cared for by their father, and Clifton's mother has her youngest child.

She's still figuring out who will care for her son.

"I wonder what he looks like," she said, smiling.

Camille C. Spencer can be reached at cspencer@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4609.

Birth Behind Bars teaches pregnant Pasco County inmates to be capable mothers 08/28/09 [Last modified: Friday, August 28, 2009 8:47pm]
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