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Professional stakeholders’ determinations about whether, and in what circumstances, young children should reside with incarcerated mothers Dr Cath Peake.

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Presentation on theme: "Professional stakeholders’ determinations about whether, and in what circumstances, young children should reside with incarcerated mothers Dr Cath Peake."— Presentation transcript:

1 Professional stakeholders’ determinations about whether, and in what circumstances, young children should reside with incarcerated mothers Dr Cath Peake & Dr Terry Bartholomew Forensic Psychology Program Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia

2 Objectives Provide background for the research into the co- residence of children with incarcerated mothers Present the rationale and aims of the empirical study that investigated professional stakeholders’ attitudes about decision-making factors in this domain Describe the study design and methodology Summarise the results and trends Outline conclusions and implications

3 Background issues The majority of female prisoners are mothers of dependent children Female prisoners present with high levels of social and economic disadvantage Children’s care arrangements are likely to be significantly disrupted when mothers are incarcerated The enforced separation of mother and child in the event of maternal incarceration has implications for children’s wellbeing

4 Child co-residence in prison “In recognition that continuity in the relationship between primary carer and child is of great importance to the child’s emotional, intellectual and social development” (New South Wales Department of Corrective Services, 1996). “The importance of establishing a sustaining bond between an infant or young child and their mother” (Corrections Victoria, 2005).


6 Australian policies Guiding principles Victoria (2005) The best interests of the child is the overriding principle governing all decisions made in relation to supporting the relationship between imprisoned mothers and their child…and with regard to whether the management, good order or security of the prison will not be threatened by the child living in the prison. New South Wales (1996) The best interests of the child is the paramount consideration…. Participation in the full time residence program is the option of last resort… Queensland (2006) If there is suitable accommodation in the facility for the child and it is in the child’s best interests… South Australia (2003) When children are permitted to reside in prison with their mother the best interests of the child are of paramount importance… Tasmania (2004) If it is in the best interests of the child…and the management, good order or security of the prison will not be threatened by the child living in the prison. Western Australia (2005) …where it is considered to be in the best interests of the child and the management and security of the prison is not threatened. Northern Territory (1998) …where the occupancy is in the best interests of the child, providing the (mother’s offence) does not pose a risk to the child and adequate facilities are available.

7 Decision-making difficulties No precise operational definition of “best interests” Likely competition between child focused and organisational factors Relevant factors and/or their weighting not specified in any guidelines Decisions open to inconsistency and differing interpretations

8 Rationale for the study 1 The issue of whether, or under what circumstances, children should reside in prisons with their incarcerated mothers is contentious. 2 Using the ‘best interests’ principle as a key decision making factor is problematic, as there are inherent difficulties in defining, measuring and implementing the standard. 3 How child-focused factors are likely to be weighted and balanced against maternal factors and other correctional and organisational considerations in making such decisions is unclear. 4 Professionals in other contexts seek clearer guidelines for making ‘best interests’ child placement decisions. 5 The perspectives of different professional groups are of interest.

9 Study aims To determine whether key Australian stakeholders believe that children should be permitted to reside with incarcerated mothers. To identify the rationales underpinning their opinions. To ascertain how stakeholders prioritise and weight factors when considering the issue. To ascertain who these professionals think should assess and make rulings on the placement of children with incarcerated mothers. To investigate whether different professional roles impact on opinions.

10 Child co-residence in prison Considerations Attachment relationship Deprivation of normal experiences Available resources and facilities Continuity of careSafety of prison environment Management and “good order” of the prison BreastfeedingParenting skillsSentencing issues

11 Questionnaire 66 scale items measure attitudes to Children’s rights (1 subscale) Prisoners’ rights (1 subscale) BIOC standard (2 subscales) Mother / child relationship factors (3 subscales) Impact of prison environment for children (3 subscales) Correctional / organisational issues (4 subscales) (5 point Likert scales: Strongly agree – Strongly disagree) Other variables Should children ever live in prisons with mothers? Upper age limit of child? Factors that should be used for assessment? Who should assess / make final decision? Demographic – professional factors

12 Response rate 820 questionnaires distributed 113 surveys returned Response rate = 13.8% Proportion of sample Correctional42.5% Statutory child protection28.3% Child welfare16.8% Research7.1% Prisoner support4.4%

13 Importance given to different criteria SubscaleMean (%) The best interests standard82.0 Prisoners’ rights79.5 Mother’s offence type should influence decision79.0 Specialised facilities in prison are required73.3 Child placement should be dependent on mother’s behaviour in prison 70.7 Mother/child attachment relationship69.3

14 Children should never live in prison with their mothers (N = 113)

15 Factors that delineated between the ‘children never in prison’ and ‘children in prison’ groups Subscale Prison environment is poor for children Maintaining continuity in care is important Child will lack normal experiences in prison Attachment relationship

16 Never in prison “From my observations I do not believe that children in a correctional facility have the same opportunities as those in the community. They are restricted due to prison confines, lack of interaction with children their own age, removed from the general public and everyday activities” (case 79). “Deprivation of freedom. A punishment of type for others’ behaviour. Lack of appropriate socialisation” (case 28).

17 Upper age limit for child Response range: 3 months to 6 years Mean: 4.2 years (50.3 months)

18 Professionals who had worked in a prison scored significantly lower on: Prison environment (as unsuitable) Prisoners’ rights Best interests Deprivation of liberty (of child) And higher on: Being conditional on mother’s behaviour

19 Importance of decision-making criteria CriteriaWeighting Nature of the prison environment Provision of specialised facilities and programs, child safety, type of prison 274 Parenting competence Including history of parenting, mental health and substance abuse issues 204 Availability of an alternative caregiver 179 Enabling the attachment relationship 154 Age of the child Younger age, higher priority to keep child and mother together 140

20 Who should assess whether to place a child in prison? Professional groupNo. citations Psychologists 71 Social workers 53 Prison staff/management 49 Child welfare worker 46 Medical professionals (GPs, M&CHN) 36 Psychiatrists 12

21 Who should make the ultimate decision?

22 Summary of professionals’ beliefs Children should be permitted to co-reside in prison The upper age limit for child co-residents should be about 4 years Child placement in prison should primarily be conditional on the type of facilities and resources available, and the parenting competence of the mother Placement assessments should be conducted by professionals with a psychological/child focus The ultimate decision about whether to allow a child to reside in prison should lie with the relevant correctional authority

23 Implications The salient issues/factors for decision-making have been collectively articulated for the first time Professionals have expressed what they consider to be the most important decision-making criteria and who should be involved in decision-making processes – a combination of practical and theoretical considerations Further investigation about rationales for upper age limits is required Professionals have different opinions about how a child’s best interests is served in the situation of maternal incarceration Highlights inconsistencies between current policies / resources and preferred practice Provides a coherent framework for future policy in this important (but to date piecemeal) area

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