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Gail Smith, Legal Advocate, Receives White House Honor


The founder of a Chicago legal services group that helps incarcerated mothers, their children and caregivers build better lives has been proclaimed a “Champion of Change” by the White House. 

During a White House ceremony on June 12, Gail T. Smith, founder of Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers (CLAIM), received the honor for her distinguished career, which includes working on legislation that bans the use of shackles on pregnant women, advocating for community alternatives to jail for parents charged with nonviolent offenses and supporting parental rights, her organization said in a statement.

U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole called Smith and other community honorees at the ceremony “fierce advocates for our children.” The White House highlighted the work of these community leaders in ensuring that “innocent children, nearly 2 million of whom have a parent who is incarcerated, do not suffer as a consequence of adult decisions,” CLAIM said.

Smith has been involved in legal advocacy work for families for 27 years. “Children need parents,” she said in a statement regarding her award.

Gail T. Smith. Photo courtesy of Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers

“The most important thing we can do for them is to consider their needs on the front end, at bail and sentencing, to reduce incarceration of mothers and fathers charged with nonviolent offenses. We have much more work to do to prevent harm to children, instead of addressing the damage our system does to them after it has happened.”

About 30 years ago, as a law school student, she attended a meeting organized by the National Conference on Women and the Law. The meeting, discussions involving Ellen Barry, an attorney, and the stories of how incarceration affected children “changed her life,” Smith said.

In remarks posted on the White House website, Smith highlighted Warnice Robinson, who spoke “publicly about the torture and humiliation of being shackled in full restraints when she was taken from prison to the hospital to give birth.”

There is an overwhelming need, Smith continued, for mothers who are convicted of nonviolent crimes to stay with their children.

“Most babies born to mothers in jail and prison are separated within a day or two,” she said. “They can never recover that lost time for mother-infant bonding, which forms the keystone of our human development and our family relationships.”

Editor’s note: Read about other White House “Champions of Change,” who have been featured in Equal Voice News. On May 7, Pramila Jayapal, founder of OneAmerica, Catherine Eusebio of Asian American/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy and Myrla Baldonado, who works with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, were featured.

On April 8, Lawrence Benito of Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Maria Rodriguez of Florida Immigrant Coalition and Rich Stolz of OneAmerica were featured. On Feb. 26, Joyce Parker of Citizens for a Better Greenville was featured. 

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