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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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Study of the Mother-Child Program


The number of federally sentenced women (FSW) is small , and, as a result, this population has not been targeted for many innovative experiments, nor has it been the subject of preventive action adapted to its specific needs. In this regard, let us mention, in particular, that two thirds of women in prison are mothers of children under five years of age, that they are often single parents, and that living apart is an ordeal for both the mothers and their children. However, "the development of parenting skills and the establishment of the mother-child relationship are both social characteristics and social expectations in regard to all mothers, including those who have serious difficulties of adaptation" (CRJ, 1992). When we understand this social fact and its implications, we see the absolute necessity of looking for new strategies that will be better suited to the culture and specific needs of mothers serving a federal sentence and their children.

Identification of this serious problem of mother-child separation and of the concerns to which it gives rise, and the fact that there are many mothers in the FSW population, led to the creation of a task force (in 1990), which examined the issue. The task force recognized the deficiency in the development of programs and services in this area, and even more in the evaluation of these programs when they exist.

Most existing programs fall into the category of public visiting programs (day care program) or programs of occasional or part-time residence in a facility or probation centre. Regarding actual full-time residence programs, let us mention, in particular, the case of long-term nurseries in prison environments, which have been "marked by controversy". This controversy arose in part because of a lack of objective information or because of differences of opinion concerning the development of emotional ties (Cannings, 1990). Moreover, the lack of any systematic evaluation of these programs made the cohabitation of mothers and children in a prison environment (whether of long or short duration) seem a paradoxical phenomenon. Nonetheless, there are data to show that well-structured programs can produce a preventive effect.

One of the recommendations of the Task Force (1990) is to allow women to live with their children on a full-time or part-time basis in the facility where they are required to remain, subject to a certain number of conditions and criteria. This recommendation has been accepted by the Government. However, a number of points require further clarification, in particular: the critical stages of the development of the child; the essential conditions for the child's well-being; the impact of the child's circumstances on his or her development; suggestions and solutions regarding these circumstances; the relevance of setting up parenting skills acquisition programs for clients; and the relevance of staff training.

This document has been developed to examine these issues in greater depth. It will also provide an opportunity to situate the mother-child program in the context of the development and operation of FSW facilities. The document is designed as a complement to what already exists, and will therefore not repeat all the details concerning the infrastructure, as these have already been given in great abundance in the operational plan. The document is divided into four parts. Part One deals with the stages of development of the child and with the child's basic needs. Part Two situates the program in the context of the development of FSW services, while Part Three deals with prevention. Finally, Part Four offers some suggestions for making the program more effective.