A Kansas City woman is working to help as many moms as possible spend Mother's Day with their children, rather than behind bars or battling legal fines.
Justice Gatson, an organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union and activist, raised about $3,000 that she's donating to local mothers to bail them out of jail or pay their legal fines.
It's part of a "Black Mama's Bail Out" program. In previous years, such programs have benefited mothers in other cities, but this is the first year it's come to Kansas City, Gatson said.
"The bottom line is, if you have money, then you can afford justice," Gatson said. "If you don't have money, then you have to sit and hope you get some."
Candice Shepard, who is African-American, is one mother who's experienced the wrenching pain of being led away from her children in handcuffs.
Shepard was pulled over in March in Platte County. Her three young children were with her when an officer arrested her for an improper vehicle registration and driving without a license.
Saying goodbye to her children was sickening, she said.
"You try to explain to your kids you'll be right back," she said.
Her middle child, a 2-year-old, said, "I want to be with you, Mama."
Shepard said she's never been convicted of a serious crime, only traffic violations, which a review of Missouri court records confirmed . She's struggled for years as a single mother without a license and has been jailed about eight times — all for vehicle-related infractions.
After her most recent arrest, she spent eight hours in jail before deciding to bail herself out.
"The money I had to bond out of jail was to move into a home," she said.
Now she's homeless and living with a friend, Deyonica Fisher.
"I would honestly say if I were rich or I had money, $10,000 or whatever, I would be OK. Not OK-OK, but I'd be OK as in I would be able to get tags, afford a decent lawyer," Shepard said. "If I get a ticket I could pay it right then and there. I’d probably have a license back. I wouldn’t be homeless right now."
A warrant for her arrest was issued in April for driving while revoked, a misdemeanor.
But it will be taken care of, she said, thanks to Gatson's work.
Fisher, Shepard's friend, has also languished in jail away from her children.
Last August, Fisher was jailed in Jackson County over a weekend. She thought about her three children throughout and "cried the whole time I was in there."
Fisher was arrested on destruction of property and domestic violence charges, she said, after her children's father accused her of the crimes.
But Fisher contends she was actually the victim, and after multiple court dates in which the father didn't appear, her charges were dropped.
Her sister helped pay her $400 bond — money that wasn't returned to her after her name was cleared.
Fisher has also struggled to keep her vehicle's registration up to date and was homeless for a period in 2017.
Kansas City, Kan., Police Chief Terry Zeigler said that while he doesn't oppose Gatson's efforts to help mothers, there "has to be consequences ... when people don't follow or try to remedy their legal issues."
Megha Ramaswamy, a public health professor at the University of Kansas, has studied the intersection of women's health and the criminal justice system for 15 years, including the past eight in the Kansas City area.
Women who are locked up are "overwhelmingly racial and ethnic minorities, overwhelmingly poor," she said.
Most are non-violent offenders, she said.
And the majority are mothers.
"I would emphasize that we lock up a lot of moms," Ramaswamy said. "It does a disservice to families and communities to pull women out of their homes."
In a survey of 261 women conducted from 2014 to 2016 among women inmates of the Wyandotte, Jackson and Johnson county jails, Ramaswamy found two-thirds were mothers and about half had a child or children under 18 living with them at the time of their incarceration.
More than a quarter of the women surveyed in the Kansas City area answered "yes" when asked if they or their children had ever been hungry due to a lack of food.
The National Institute of Justice estimated in 2017 that as many as 2.7 million, or approximately 11 percent of all children, experienced a parent's incarceration at least once in childhood. African-American children are 7.5 times more likely than white children to experience a parent's incarceration.
Ramaswamy estimated as much as 80 percent of incarcerated women nationally are mothers.
Adverse effects of incarcerating parents vary widely depending on the child's family support system, but they can include antisocial behavior, trouble in school, economic hardship and criminal activity, according to the National Institute of Justice.
One study indicated children of incarcerated parents are six times more likely to themselves be imprisoned one day.
Another study found children who have more contact with their incarcerated mothers are less likely to drop out or be suspended from school.
Gatson advocated for an effort like that seen in New Jersey, where cash bail was eliminated last year. Judges decide if a person is a flight risk or not and jail them (or release them) accordingly as they await trial.
"It would equalize the system," Gatson said of the prospect of similar policy being enacted in Missouri. "Because then we won’t have this pay for justice that we have going on. Somebody could get stuck in jail over a $100 ticket and that $100 ticket could cost them so much more: make them lose their employment, their children. ... People with means, they don’t have to go through that."
Gatson has also founded the Reale Justice Network and Social Justice Doulas International, two organizations serving underprivileged women.