Friday, 5 September 2008

Should mothers sent to prison be able to keep their newborn babies with them?


An important issue that has confused a great many people world wide is whether or not pregnant women who are sent to prison should be able to keep their babies for at least four years with them while they serve their time.

Many do not see why this can’t happen if that is the wish of the mother. Others will say that the newborn baby should be taken from the mother and placed with her family or relatives until the mother is eventually released.

With the cutting of the umbilical cord, physical attachment to our mothers ends and our emotional and psychological attachment with our mothers begins. While the first attachment provides everything we need to thrive inside the womb, many psychologists believe the second attachment provides the psychological foundation and maybe even the social and physical buffer we need to thrive in the world. This is why the bonding between a mother and her newborn child is so important.

Of course, this is not unique in nature. Hatchings who don’t see their mother that laid the eggs will bond with the first animal or human it sees and follow it, she or he wherever they go. Recently we read about the young whale that was born and the first thing it saw was a small boat. It followed the boat wherever it went but since it couldn’t be nursed by the boat, the authorities had no other choice other that to euthanize the poor creature before it starved to death.

Babies become attached to their primary-care giver, usually their mothers. Securely attached babies consider that 'Mom' is a safe base from which to explore their environment. Infants and children form attachments with other primary-care providers also which affect a child's development but it is here that I see a major problem.
Suppose the mother of the newborn baby is removed from its mother and cared for by the mother’s adult sister. Ten years later when the mother is finally released from prison, she will find it almost impossible to bond with her child since the initial bonding with the child’s aunt will take such a firm hold on the child, it will find it difficult or perhaps even impossible to bond with its real mother.

I should point out that babies bond with their birth mothers even before they are born. The reason for this is because during the third trimester, the baby can hear its mother’s voice as a result of the vibrations within the mother’s body and of course, immediately after it is born; it can hear its mother’s voice. If the baby is taken away after a few days, the bond is broken and the baby obviously becomes confused. Eventually, the baby out of necessity, bonds with its new caregiver.

Infants who are emotionally securely attached to their birth-mothers become more self-reliant toddlers and have a better sense of self-esteem. Now this isn’t to say that a baby that is given to another caregiver can’t end up being more reliant or have a sense of self-esteem but it seems logical that it is more apt to adapt these attributes sooner if it remains with its birth-mother during its formulative years.

Alan Sroufe, PhD, an attachment researcher at the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota stated in his report of a study he did with a group of 180 disadvantaged children that even though these children lead unstable lives, if they had a secure birth-mother-infant attachment, they were more likely to be self-reliant into adolescence, have lower rates of psychopathology, enjoy successful peer relationships through age 16 and do well in school; especially in math, at all ages. Sroufe doesn't think infant attachment affects aptitude, but he believes it affects confidence, attitude and, subsequently, attendance and achievement. Megan Gunnar, PhD, of the same institute and university said that secure infant attachment may provide children with a crucial tool for dealing with stress by buffering their physiological reaction to novel or unexpected events.

Research indicates that the children of incarcerated mothers, in particular, suffer immediate and enduring adverse effects on their relationships with their peers, irreparable harm to their relationship with their mother, and may be at a greater risk of future incarceration themselves. The following behaviour exhibited by children with incarcerated parents such as; physical health problems, hostile and aggressive behaviour, use of drugs or alcohol, truancy, running away from home, disciplinary problems, withdrawal, fearfulness, bedwetting, poor school performance, excessive crying, nightmare, problems in relationships with others, anxiety and depression and attention problems. Admittedly, this can occur in children even if after they remain with their birth-mothers until they are no longer toddlers and are then sent to live elsewhere but it is more prevalent if the children have been removed from their birth-mothers soon after their births.

Article 2.1 of the United Nations ‘Convention on the Rights of the Child’ and other legal provisions deals in part with discouraging the unnecessary separation of children from their parents. It follows that this also applies to the separation of babies from their birth-parents. Article 3(1) of the Convention establishes the key principle that the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration in any decision concerning them.

All of this is lost if a baby is removed from the baby’s birth mother soon after the baby is born. In a U.N. report put out by its Commission on Human Rights said in part; “There are no simple solutions but the complexity of the situation cannot be an excuse for failing to protect the rights of children who have a parent in prison.”

It should be noted however that many of the same issues and problems arise for children of imprisoned fathers but I will not deal with those issues in this piece.

The Committee recommended to the world governments that they review the current practice of children living with their parents in prison, with a view to limiting the stay to instances in which it is in his/her best interest, and to ensuring that the living conditions are suitable for his/her needs for the harmonious development of his/her personality.

The Committee further recommended that if the mothers can’t have their babies with them in prison, then alternative care for those children who are separated from their mothers in prison should be regularly reviewed ensuring that the physical and mental needs of children are appropriately met. Furthermore, it recommended that the governments around the world continue to ensure that alternative care allows the child to maintain personal relations and direct contact with the mother who remains in prison.

There are 226 young children in Afghanistan's prisons, including many who were born there. Their mothers have decided prison is the best option for them in a poor, war-torn country where a safe, comfortable home is a rarity.

In many European countries, babies and children up to 3 years old are allowed to stay in prison with their mothers to ease the pain of separation. And in the United States, a few jails also allow mothers to have their children with them.

At the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, Ohio there are prison mothers who are participants in a prison nursery program which allows them to keep their babies with them as they are serving their felony sentence. Since 2001 nearly 130 babies have been “incarcerated” with their mothers at the ORW.

The nursery program at ORW is called Achieving Baby Care Success (ABCS) and it is located within the razor wired fence in a separate housing unit. The mothers share a twelve by six foot room with their child in a housing area with an average of ten other inmate mothers and babies. The rooms are not the typical cell. They are painted with bright murals and have other baby d├ęcor such as stuffed animals, homemade quilts and pictures. It is conceivable that most of the babies have a much nicer living environment inside the prison than they would if their mother had never been incarcerated.

The inmate mothers can also purchase items for their child through the prison commissary and outside vendors or their loved ones can send in clothing boxes to the babies if they choose. A pediatrician has office hours in the nursery once a week and is on call any time for emergencies. Also, because the mother is a ward of the state, she is eligible for federal programs such as Women with Infant Children and Medicaid to assist with medical costs and medication for their babies. Child support may also be sought and received while the inmate participates in the program.

While participating in the nursery program, the inmate has continuous contact with a case manager who monitors her program participation in various other institutional programs. Upon entering ABCS program, the case manger meets with the inmate and makes a series of program recommendations based on her individual needs such as schooling, drug and alcohol counseling, life skills, stress management and vocational training. The case manager assists the inmate in enrolling in the recommended programs and follows her progress until completion. In addition to individualized programming, all the inmate mothers must participate in Responsible Family Life Skills, Help Me Grow, Infant CPR, Car Seat Safety and other child care specific programming.

This nursery program was modeled after a long time prison nursery founded in New York. There are about 10 other prison nurseries nationwide in the United States. A new prison nursery was opened in a female federal prison in 2007.

Mothers are generally law biding citizens unless they are hooked on drugs or they are alcoholics so it follows that if mothers in prison are able to keep their small children with them until they are three or four years of age and at the same time, they receive the benefits similar to those given in the aforementioned correctional facility for women, they will, upon their release, live to be honest citizens and good mothers. They know that if they commit another crime, they will lose all they worked for and perhaps never get it all back again.

When I was in Bangkok, Thailand in 2005 giving two speeches at a U.N. crime conference, I and others were invited by the Thai government to visit the Central Women’s Prison in Bangkok and while we were there, we learned that mothers where permitted to keep their babies with them until they are no longer toddlers. After that, children would live with family members or other relatives. Other prisoners at the prisons who were being taught how to be child caregivers would look after the babies while the mothers were working in the prison but after work, the mothers would care for their babies. Of course, while the babies were in the nursing stage, their mothers would nurse them when the need arose.

It is for this reason that prison authorities in different countries permit birth mothers to keep their babies with them until they are older when the bond between the mother and baby is well secured. Unfortunately, not all countries believe in the concept just described.

In the UK over 60 percent of women prisoners have young children. Women are nearly always the primary care-givers and are often single mothers. At least 4,000 children are affected by their mothers' imprisonment. Only three percent of women have a child in prison with them. So children have to be farmed out. Most are living with their mothers prior to the woman's imprisonment and for 85 percent it is the first time they have been separated for more than a day or two. Siblings are often separated. There is evidence that most children become withdrawn and depressed. One in four has difficulty sleeping or becomes physically ill. Seventy percent see their mother only once a month or less. Half of all babies under one year who are in care because their mothers are in prison are moved between two and four different homes which are psychologically harmful to the infants.

A study in the UK has shown that the detrimental impact on the behaviour of children deprived of parental care through parental imprisonment is greater than the impact on children who lose or are separated from their parent in other ways.

Mothers who want to bond with their newborn babies will no longer be able to do that in a British Columbia provincial jail. Corrections B.C. has cancelled a plan that allowed pregnant inmates to keep their babies with them while they served time. The program was a four-year experiment for the provincial government. Corrections spokesperson Lisa Lapointe said safety was key in the decision to scrub the program. She said; “Our staff are not trained to supervise infants and they're not trained in infant first aid either," she said. "If something went wrong and we didn't respond appropriately, we just couldn't risk putting an infant in that situation."

Quite frankly, I find that excuse most unacceptable. If the B.C. government really cared, they would put a qualified nurse in the unit on a 24-hour basis so that if and when an emergency did occur, there would be a nurse on hand to deal with it.

Here is her second excuse. “No other province in Canada allows women to keep their babies in jail after giving birth.” She said the program was unfair to women who have young children but didn't give birth while in jail.” More silly claptrap. If the B.C. correctional facilities permitted the program to continue, other provinces would eventually come around to doing the same thing.

The federal prison authorities in Canada have such a program. The Correctional Service of Canada has agreed that women with children should have a variety of on-site residential and visiting options when the new facilities are open. Where it is in the best interest of the child, a mother will even be able to care for her child in the institution until the child is of school age.

In the interim, the Prison for Women has dealt with nine pregnant inmates since 1990. In most cases, the child was born during the mother's conditional release. A few babies spent their first days in the institution, however, before being transferred with their mother to a provincial facility.

Recently, one mother was (with the consent of the Commissioner) allowed to care for her child at the minimum-security institution in Kingston under the Mother-Child Program. The federal efforts made to accommodate expectant mothers over the past few years seem to demonstrate the Service's attempts to keep the birth-mothers and their small children together. The mother and her child live in a special condominium facility which is kept separate from the rest of the correctional facility.

I believe that the concept of birth-mothers and their babies in correctional facilities is long overdue. It is time for the provincial authorities in Canada to recognize the importance of bonding between new-born babies and infants with their mothers as it is crucial not only to the well being of the children but also to the well being of the mothers. To think otherwise, is simply being mean

UPDATE: December 17, 2013    A British Columbia Court ruled that a decision by the government to prohibit mothers in prison from keeping their babies with them is unconstitutional. Justice Carol Ross sided with two mothers who were in jail and ordered that their babies should be returned to them while they are in jail. 

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