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'Baby Lady' Heaps Love on Infants of Inmates

August 19, 1986|BARRY S. SURMAN | Times Staff Writer

Since a few days after his birth, Petey Stephens has had two mommies.

One "mother" is Frieda Weststeyn, who cares for 15-month-old Petey in her home on a northwest Riverside County dairy farm.

The other is Sherry Stephens, Petey's natural mother, who waits for him to visit her each Thursday evening at the California Rehabilitation Center, the medium-security state prison in Norco where she is serving time as a convicted armed robber.

During the last 18 months, Weststeyn has been foster mother to nine other children born to inmates of the state's two prisons for women--the California Rehabilitation Center and the California Institution for Women in Frontera. Both prisons are within four miles of the Weststeyn farm, where the family keeps about 1,000 cattle.

Weststeyn, 46, works outside the public social services system, connecting with expectant inmate mothers through word of mouth and communicating with them by letter. Often, Weststeyn doesn't meet the mother face to face until the day Weststeyn comes to the hospital to pick up a baby.

She accepts no pay for her work, but she does get milk and some other food through the state-administered, federally funded Women, Infants and Children Program. The babies' medical expenses are covered by Medi-Cal.

Once a month or so, an anonymous donation--of $12 or $17 or $25--comes in the mail, Weststeyn said.

She began visiting prisoners at the California Institution for Women about three years ago, after hearing in church about a program that matches inmates with volunteer visitors.

It was during her subsequent visits to the prison that Weststeyn noticed a lot of pregnant inmates. "I said, 'I wonder what they do with their babies?' "

Some of the babies would be tended by relatives, others taken to foster homes and some put up for adoption, as Weststeyn learned.

"Most of the women don't like foster homes," Weststeyn said, "because they don't see their children as often as they'd like--and sometimes they don't see them at all."

And so she offered to do something about it.

The prisoner Weststeyn was visiting at the time passed her name and address on to a pregnant friend, who began corresponding with Weststeyn. A month later, Petey Stephens was born at Riverside General Hospital. Two weeks after that, he joined the Weststeyn household.

"Within four months, I had five babies," Weststeyn recalled.

And a nickname. "The Baby Lady."

Weststeyn has made a career of caring for her family, including four sons, four daughters and eight grandchildren of her own. Her children still living at home range in age from 11 to 22.

"They say, 'We didn't volunteer for this, you did,' " Weststeyn said of her own family members. "They don't always like to (help care for the babies), but they are pretty good about it."

Her husband, Pete, doesn't mind the crowd of babies--"as long as I don't ask him to baby-sit too much," Weststeyn said. "He wouldn't have them all in our bedroom if he did . . . . He loves children as much as I do."

Petey was the first prisoner's baby that Weststeyn took in. His mother expects to be released when Petey is 2 1/2 years old.

"I live from Thursday to Thursday," Stephens said of her son's weekly visits.

Without Weststeyn, she said, Petey "would probably be in a foster home somewhere. And I probably wouldn't know where he was. And I probably wouldn't see him."

"I'm very thankful," Stephens added. "There's a lot of women in prison that are pregnant and don't have anyone."

Weststeyn's other foster children have included 5-month-old Amber, whose mother is serving a two-year sentence for robbery; Laurie, 16 months, whose mother is doing time for burglary; and Ryan, whose mother is serving 3 years, 8 months for arson.

'One-Woman Crusade'

Weststeyn "has become a one-woman crusade . . . providing a very valuable service. I wish there were more like her," said Rebecca Jurado, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California who represents women inmates in several lawsuits over care, conditions and programs in the state prisons.

One of those suits seeks to expand women prisoners' access to a program that allows them to live with and care for their children while serving their sentences with other inmate mothers in community-based facilities.

At homes in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Jose, 32 mothers and 37 of their children are living together under that mother-infant care program, said Bob Gore, assistant director of the California Department of Corrections. Seventeen women are waiting for places in the program.

Within a month or two, 10 of those should be accommodated at a new facility--called Fry House--opening in San Francisco, Gore said. And 15 more places will be available soon afterward in Oakland.

But prisoner advocates say that still is far from sufficient. They estimate that 500 or 600 prisoners may be eligible for the program.

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