MOMS BEHIND BARS GET EARLY MOTHER'S DAY WITH KIDS CHILDREN SEE KIN FOR FIRST TIME IN MONTHS IN CYA FACILITY.
CAMARILLO - Angela Rodriguez's eyes filled with tears Friday, the first time she saw her 10-month-old daughter Niah walk on her own.
But these weren't Niah's first tentative steps. Rodriguez's baby walked for the first time two weeks earlier and hundreds of miles away as Rodriguez was locked up at the Ventura Youth Correctional Center in Camarillo.
Two days before Mother's Day, Rodriguez saw Niah courtesy of ``Get on the Bus,'' a program that brought the children of about 20 female California Youth Authority wards to visit their mothers, some for the first time in years.
For Rodriguez, 20, who gave birth to Niah while incarcerated, seeing her daughter's stumbling steps for the first time made her realize what she's been missing as her mother takes care of the baby in Salinas.
She last saw Niah six weeks ago, before she was sent back to the CYA for a parole violation.
``She's walking, she's talking more, she has more teeth,'' Rodriguez said. ``She grew up on me. I should be at home.''
CYA Chaplain Catherine Conneally-Salazar modeled the program on a similar one that brings family members to visit inmates at a state prison in Chowchilla.
The Camarillo lockup, the only one in the state to house the system's 225 female wards, stopped being a co-ed facility in February when its 275 male wards were transferred to other institutions.
Some of the visiting children came from hundreds of miles away, boarding buses at 4:30 a.m. Friday.
Once inside the institution's new visiting hall, they were greeted with food, balloons, games and a clown - and the chance to visit with mom for about 3 1/2 hours.
Many of the wards, like Rodriguez, gave birth to their children inside the CYA and saw them taken away a day later, Conneally-Salazar said.
They had no time to develop the skills they will need to mother their children once they're released, she said.
``There's no bond, no connection,'' Conneally-Salazar said. ``She has no idea how to be a mother. Today she got to rock that child, feed that child.''
Local schools and a civic group raised the $3,500 needed to bring the families to Camarillo, and school children and businesses brought clothing, gift bags, teddy bears and food.
Many of the wards were nervous as they waited for their children to arrive.
Viaonca Schlingloft, 18, of Fresno said she was on the verge of tears as she waited for her 4-year-old daughter Marisof to arrive with Schlingloft's mother.
Schlingloft, who hadn't seen Marisof since she was sent to the CYA 13 months ago on battery and burglary charges, didn't know if her little girl would recognize her.
``I didn't know how she would react,'' Schlingloft said. ``But she ran to me. She remembered me.''
Andrea Cavanaugh, (805) 583-7602
Fernando Montes Jr., 4, left, looks at his mom Crystal Hernandez, right, who has been in CYA custody for 2 1/2 years. Dad Fernando Montes looks on at left. The family got together at a special early Mother's Day party for the moms on Friday in Camarillo.
Charlotte Schmid-Maybach/Staff Photographer