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Mary Atterholt shows women there's a way to start over, even with the stigma of a terrible crime. 

Ally of the Exiles

She calls them her "moms." That's what they are, Mary Atterholt says, even though some would deny them the name.

She guides them through the toughest days: Mother's Day. Birthdays. The anniversary of the day each killed a child. And where others see horror, she sees hope.

Atterholt, a therapist with St. Paul's Episcopal Church's Outreach Ministry, counsels incarcerated women who have been convicted of child homicide. It's not a role anyone envies. "The first thing people say is, 'Oh, why would you want to do that?'" she says, feigning a grimace. "Or, 'Oh, that must be so hard.'"

Hard? Definitely. Why? "I do it because I'm interested in them," Atterholt says. "I'm interested in how to make their lives better. And I'm interested because no one else is interested."

She's worked with imprisoned women for nine years, and her "moms" for four, but Atterholt has never sought a spotlight on her work. In April, she'll be given the preeminent prize for women in Richmond, the YWCA's Outstanding Women Award, in the category of religion. The honor touches her, but recognition has never been her goal, she says: "I'd much rather be in a place that's not popular and see changes."

Several times a week, she leaves her cheerful, eucalyptus-scented office downtown and heads to one of the three area facilities where she works with female inmates. A mother herself, Atterholt makes it clear that she's no bleeding heart. "They should be in prison," she says firmly. "They should do their time. But it's tough, after you've done your time, to be kicked down again."

This is what happens when a woman kills a child: She goes into shock, Atterholt says, and "like a car accident," the events of the arrest and trial become a blur. "It takes them years to remember courtroom events."

Once in prison, life is hell. "You become the target of the other inmates," Atterholt says. "They can raise themselves by calling you a baby-killer." And, she adds, there's no way to hide your history. "They know before you ever hit the gates."

Former friends and family members try to forget the horror — "It's easier just to put it behind them and not talk about them," she says. Boyfriends and husbands often disappear. Shunned by others, unable to talk about what happened, these women live in silence and denial for 10 or 15 years. "And what most people don't realize is she's going to come back into the community," Atterholt says.

That's why, four years ago, she created the support group called Reflections. At first, she says, inmates were reluctant to participate — "It's easier to contain it by not talking about it." Eventually, 10 women decided to join.

It was tough to figure out where to start; Atterholt knew of no other group like it. Sometimes, simply getting the women to talk openly about their crimes seemed impossible, she admits. "They talk about it like they're on trial," she says of new members. They relate the facts as if a lawyer were coaching them, as if they were miles away when the murder occurred. But over time — sometimes as much as a year, she says — each woman lets down her guard a little.

As they talk, Atterholt listens. Each has a different story, but there are common threads. "She's usually a pretty dependable person in the family structure," Atterholt says of the women. The listener. The consoler. Most of them rarely, if ever, ask for support, Atterholt says. Yet inside they feel overwhelming desperation and don't know how to cope.

Many of the women she works with have mental disorders or developmental delays, a history of drug use or of being abused. Often their motive for child homicide is "I didn't want my child to go through what I went through," Atterholt says. She's seen women whose babies died in utero because of drug abuse, mothers who neglected their children or hit them or drowned them.

Helping the women is a daunting task. But Atterholt says she sees real changes. In a bright room with barred windows, sitting in a circle, her moms learn to express emotion, to speak about their troubles and their hopes. "I talk about what their voice is," says Atterholt. "Who they are. How to use their voice."

When the women are released, a whole new journey begins. Atterholt continues to counsel many of her moms on everything from parenting to nutrition to computer skills. Sometimes she walks with mothers to the gravesites of their children and stands there silently as they weep. She asks them, "Now that you're in the community, what are you going to do different?"

Atterholt works with her moms' group at Pocahontas Correctional Unit 13, but she offers the same support for other inmates who are serving time for other crimes in two area prisons: Fluvanna Correctional Center and the Virginia Correctional Center for Women in Goochland.

Linda Pitts, 50, remembers the day in 1998 when she was released from a sentence for heroin possession and grand larceny. Pitts' possessions fit into six cardboard boxes. She had no home, no license and a heavy burden of debt. But "I knew Mary," she says.

Pitts met Atterholt in prison. "She was very matter-of-fact," Pitts says. "She didn't entertain a lot of BS." Pitts asked for help upon her release, and Atterholt told her, "Write me a letter and we'll see."

Pitts did. A dozen times. "Mary, don't forget me," she would write. "I'm here and I know my release date." Atterholt didn't forget. She found Pitts a place to live and took her on as a ministry volunteer. She's now the facilities manager at St. Paul's.

For four years, Pitts wrote the YWCA of Richmond, nominating Atterholt for its annual award. This year, at last, Atterholt won — for enabling "women to overcome some of life's worst hardships," says Bev Lacy, chairwoman of the awards committee.

Atterholt takes the YWCA award as a sign that her women — many of whom signed the nomination form — have learned to speak out.

"When I was nominated, it was really hard for me to be in the forefront," she says. "One of the girls told me, 'You know, we understand that.'"

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