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Impact of Parental Incarceration on Children

Insights from Mothers Project about Imprisoned Mothers in New Zealand

This paper was presented by Stacey Shortall at an NZ Law Society webinar in October 2023 with Her Honour Justice Susan Thomas and Fiona Guy Kidd KC.


Analysis of New Zealand Census data tells us that imprisoned women are more likely than women in the general population to have given birth to children. They are in fact twice as likely to have four or more children. So it should come as no surprise that the vast majority of the approximately 500 women currently imprisoned in New Zealand are mothers (and/or caregivers of children, collectively referred to as “mothers” here) and often of at least several children. Many were primary caregivers before going behind the wire. Since 2015, Mothers Project has been sending volunteer female lawyers once a month into New Zealand’s female prisons to help mothers. An initiative of the Who Did You Help Today charitable trust, Mothers Project has so far helped more than 900 imprisoned mothers to better understand their parental responsibilities and rights. The purpose of this short paper is to provide an overview of the Mothers Project initiative and how it operates in New Zealand’s female prisons, together with some insights in relation to parental imprisonment. Overview of Mothers Project:

For parents, imprisonment means that part of their punishment is being physically and emotionally separated from their children. As a result, children effectively serve prison sentences too. Although this affects both men and women, in my experience, the stakes are higher – and the adverse consequences are more severe – for mothers. This is because (without wishing to diminish the roles of some fathers) many imprisoned mothers were more deeply involved in their children’s lives before going behind the wire. The opportunity to improve consequences is also more available for mothers. And that is because approximately 50% of New Zealand women in prison are on remand – awaiting trial or sentence – which is a far greater proportion than for our men’s prison population. Mothers Project was developed in 2014 and later launched at the Auckland Women’s Prison. While the project focuses on working with imprisoned mothers, volunteers are motivated to help their children. In this connection, it is estimated that around 20,000 New Zealand children are impacted by parental imprisonment. Mothers Project subsequently grew to also include the Wellington and Christchurch female prisons. Coordinated and trained through Mothers Project, over 160 lawyers have volunteered time on the project to date. While the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted for a period the ability of Mothers Project volunteers to visit each female prison every month, the project generally involves a group of lawyers spending a morning a month at the prisons. Going onto prison units or meeting mothers in educational rooms, volunteer lawyers invite any woman who is a mother or child caregiver to speak with them about any questions relating to their children. Often the demand is great. Mothers typically meet with MothersProject on multiple visits and over some time. Many mothers repeatedly worry about the care their children are receiving while they are imprisoned and the loss of influence they have over their children’s lives. Participation is entirely voluntary by the mothers and has no status as a prison programme that they can list when applying for parole. In other words, it is hard to see an ulterior motive for a prisoner to participate in Mothers Project beyond genuinely wishing to maintain a meaningful connection with their children. Following prison visits, the volunteer lawyers make calls, as appropriate, to family members, caregivers, schools, criminal and family lawyers, and/or, if needed, Oranga Tamariki, seeking to facilitate meaningful connections between mothers and their children. Updates on the calls made and information exchanged are provided back to the imprisoned mothers. Where sought, possible and appropriate, calls and/or visits between mothers and children are arranged. In recent years, Mothers Project has run an extension called “Weaving Whānau”. Through this arm of the Project, mothers in the community under the supervision of the Department of Corrections (approximately 4,000 women) can also access help from Mothers Project volunteers. In addition, in 2022, Mothers Project began a pilot with NZ Police in the Counties Manukau Police District to offer the services of our volunteer lawyers to other mothers in the community. Police officers now make referrals directly to Weaving Whānau via their AWHI App, which is a tikanga-based voluntary referral service used by frontline Police to connect a person needing help with a wellbeing service provider in their community. MothersProject volunteers then make contact with the mother and help her in whatever way is appropriate (for example, explaining legal concepts such as protection orders, finding a family lawyer to act for her, suggesting other support services she may be able to access etc). Most AWHI referrals to Mothers Project happen following family harm incidents attended by Police. Given the success of the Counties Manukau pilot, Mothers Project has recently been asked to expand our Weaving Whānau offering into the wider Tāmaki Makaurau area, with the addition of Waitematā and Auckland Police Districts. For many years, Mothers Project has also run a Storybook Programme at Auckland Women’s Prison. Each month, a volunteer goes into the prison with a box of books and a recording device so that books can be sent to children with an audio recording of their mother reading to them. This programme is intended to help foster connections even when visits or other contacts with children are not occurring.

Insights in Relation to Parental Imprisonment:

While most imprisoned parents in New Zealand are men (estimated to be approximately 5,000 fathers compared to approximately 425 mothers) – from what I have seen – women’s imprisonment is far more disruptive to families than men’s imprisonment. Imprisoned women are much more likely to be the sole or custodial parent compared to imprisoned men. While my experience in female prisons(both here and in New York, where I previously worked) is that the majority of children of imprisoned fathers live with their mother while the father is in prison, imprisoned mothers often have a labyrinth of formal and informal (and, sometimes, State-appointed) people caring for their children. Through Mothers Project, we find many imprisoned mothers’ children living with their grandparents (often grandmothers). Other children have been placed with siblings (often sisters), friends and, more rarely, with their fathers while their mother is in prison. Indeed, often we find that the father, also, is behind bars. The imprisonment of mothers can have a profoundly destabilising effect on children and families. For example, a child’s home may change from the environment in which they lived prior to their parent’s imprisonment. They may need to move schools, change sports clubs, lose existing friendships and, on occasion, live separately to their siblings. This can be disruptive, distressing and traumatic. Sadly it is not unusual for Mothers Project volunteers to discover that the imprisoned mother she is seeking to assist has childhood experiences of her own mother being imprisoned. For many imprisoned mothers, family relationships are largely severed while they are in prison. This unsurprisingly strains mother-child relationships and is linked in some research to poor behavioural outcomes for both mothers and children. Offshore studies indicate that imprisoned mothers often have attachment disorders and can be insecure about their emotional bonds with their children. Reducing or eliminating contact between mothers and children exacerbates this insecurity, making reconnection upon release more difficult and potentially developing another generation with attachment issues. It is widely known that the likelihood of a child ending up in prison – even though there are many who do not – is greatly increased if their parent has been imprisoned. In fact, government research tells us that these children are greater than five times more likely to end up in prison than children of never-imprisoned parents. While many risk factors may contribute to why someone ends up in prison, at least one US study found that children of imprisoned mothers had higher rates of imprisonment – and even earlier and more frequent arrests – than children of imprisoned fathers. While mindful that there are exceptions, I suspect this may be because mothers are more likely to be a primary support for a child. Although offshore research shows there are proven benefits to both mothers and their children through regular contact, many mothers never receive even one visit from their children during their imprisonment. While some mothers describe to Mothers Project volunteers not wanting their children or families to see them in prison, many more mothers raise simple logistical challenges that prevent visits. For example, with female prisons only located in (the outskirts of) Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, many mothers are imprisoned miles away from home. The prison environment can also present specific obstacles to mother-child visitation, such as inadequate information about the visitation process (which we have tried to address through Mothers Project by developing child-centric information brochures for families), difficulty scheduling visits, and/or the family’s inability to access or afford transportation. Further complicating potential visits can be concerns raised by some caregivers about not wanting to upset children by bringing them to visit their mother in prison.

Indeed, physical distance, coupled with the complexity of caregiving relationships for the children of imprisoned mothers and, frankly, often poverty means that very few mothers in our experience receive at Mothers Project regular visits from their children. The COVID-19 pandemic certainly made things worse when visits were not permitted at all, and other challenges, including staffing meant women were locked in their cells for longer periods and unable to access phones to make calls to their children. It bears reiterating how international research supports that continued contact during imprisonment has positive outcomes for both children and mothers. It supports more secure attachment and bonding, plus provides positive motivation to mothers for change. Potential Barriers to Imprisoned Mothers Providing Information About Their Children to Defence Counsel

It is not clear to me that imprisoned mothers on remand in New Zealand know or understand – or, if they do, trust – that putting information about their dependent children before judges could change whether they are remanded in custody or on bail and/or positively impact sentencing decisions. While Mothers Project volunteers can seek to raise such awareness during our prison visits, defence counsel may have better opportunities to explain the significance of such information. It should, however, come as no surprise that at least some mothers may be reluctant to identify that they have dependent children. They might worry that such disclosure will cause Oranga Tamariki or other state agencies to become involved. Many imprisoned mothers had poor experiences as children themselves in state care, and fear exposing their children to similar risks. A history of childhood abuse – particularly sexual – is a recurring theme for the imprisoned mothers we encounter on Mothers Project. At least some of that abuse regrettably happened in state care. Some imprisoned mothers may also worry that providing information about their children will result in the caregiving arrangements they have made being disturbed. That, in turn, has the potential to antagonise caregivers and jeopardise the contact mothers may be having with their children. Other mothers also – not unjustifiably – feel they will be further stigmatised by disclosure because people may perceive them even more negatively given that their criminal offending adversely impacts children. Against this backdrop, reluctance to provide information about dependent children is understandable. Overcoming such reluctance will require developing trust – not only at an individual level between counsel and clients but also at an institutional level where imprisoned mothers hear of other women having more favourable remand or sentencing decisions after disclosing such information. Trust (or lack thereof because it has been abused in the past) is a very real issue for many imprisoned mothers. Without wishing to simply state the obvious, building trust requires time, clarity, empathy and good listening skills.


It is hoped that this paper provides some useful insights for counsel and others interacting with imprisoned mothers. Without in any way wishing to lessen the impact of their criminal offending on victims, in my experience, most imprisoned mothers have survived criminal behaviour inflicted on them. While not excusing their offending, their backgrounds can sometimes offer a glimpse of explanation.

All of the women I meet in prisons are different, but the mothers have one common thread – a desire for their children to have better outcomes than them and not to become victims. Anything we can do to support that desire makes good sense to me. Enabling ongoing connections between mothers and children is one way to do so.



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