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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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Study of the Mother-Child Program

Part Two: Establishing a Context

A. The Mother-Child Program Proposed in the Action Plan
B. Problems Involved


A. The Mother-Child Program Proposed in the Action Plan

As proposed in the projected work plan, this section will not present the organizational development of facilities for federally sentenced women. This work is described in detail in draft number 4 of the operational plan. Rather, what we shall do here is present, in summary form, the mother-child program as it is projected and described in this document and in the document entitled "Examen du travail du sous-comité du CNMO sur les enfants et un plan d’action pour le comité PFPPF." (May 1994).

The operational aspect of the program is presented here in order to establish correlations with psycho-social and legal parameters and with other actions designed to approach the goals projected by the program, and to make suggestions and proposals that will make it possible to minimize the negative effects that might arise from the particular circumstances of the prison environment.

The program has the following components:

1. Full-time residency of the child with his or her mother in the facility.

2. Part-time or occasional residency of the child in the facility (weekends and holidays).

3. Visits of the child in the context of family visits and of the program of private family visits at the facility.

4. Exchanges of visits at the facility and outside it in the neighbourhood, between the mother and child (when the child lives in a foster home or placement house).

1. Full-time residency of the child

Aim: To give mothers the opportunity to fulfil their parental role when this is in the best interests of the child.

Eligibility Criteria for mother and child:

The criteria are based on the needs of the mother and of the child.

• Participation in the program is optional, both for the mother and for the child.

• The mother must have some degree of responsibility in regard to the child (biological mother, legal custody, permission of the legal guardian, etc.).

• The legal custody of the child must not create a problem.

• The women must be prepared to take care of their children 24 hours a day, or to make all the necessary arrangements for an alternative.

• The director of the facility and the mother shall determine what is in the best interests of the child. They will take the following points into account:

• The existence of positive, stable ties between the mother and the child.

• Assessment of the physical and mental health of the mother, excluding any disability. The use of unprescribed drugs or alcohol terminates eligibility.

• The consent of the judicial or child protection authorities, where appropriate.

• The result of an assessment interview, in order to determine the type of program, including the program which allows the mother to raise her child, which the mother would prefer and which would benefit her and ensure participation in the programs agreed upon.

• A commitment on the mother’s part to work as a volunteer at the day care centre should she decide to make use of this service.

• The mother is the person who will establish emergency action plans (the services of a babysitter, for example).

• The mother must be prepared to co-operate with the authorities and to facilitate visits between the child and other significant members of the family, in accordance with the instructions of the judicial or child protection authorities.

• In cases where the mother has withdrawn from the program, readmission of the child to the program will be refused unless the mother has sought to resolve all difficulties that led to the withdrawal.

• A mother convicted of mistreating or neglecting her child shall not be eligible unless she has again obtained her right to custody from the courts, has received treatment or participated in a series of visits with her child.

Eligibility of the child

Among the factors that will be examined, let us mention:

• An assessment of the child’s health.

• The consent of the judicial or child protection authorities, where appropriate.

• Annual or semi-annual assessments of physical and mental health.

• Age to be determined in accordance with "certain" events.1

• Disturbances must be avoided to the greatest possible extent, and the child’s need for stability, according to competent professional workers, the mother and other family members must be taken into account.

• The consent of the child, to the greatest extent possible.


The children will live with their mothers in the facility, in housing provided for and described in the operational plan.

Children who are the subject of joint custody agreements and are staying in a facility on a part-time basis (weekends for example) are taken into consideration on the same basis as those staying in the facility.

The majority of children who have full-time residency are of preschool age (between 0 and 5 years of age).

In the home, the mother is responsible for the child. However, she can benefit from the assistance of other residents (for babysitting, etc.).

During the day, the children will be able to:

• stay with their mother,

• attend the day care centre in the facility,

• or take part in preschool programs in the community.

The nature of the activities shall be determined in accordance with the requirements for participation in this residential program.

The ways in which the child participates in activities are the same as those which exist in the community (medical visits, social, cultural and spiritual events). The children may not move about freely everywhere, and shall always be accompanied by an adult. The children may go to community institutions (health services, recreational services, religious education). Visits to relatives shall be tolerated. When it is possible, mothers will be authorized to accompany their children.

The facility shall offer, on the premises, a child care service run by qualified staff.

2. Part-time or occasional residency of the child

Aim: An aim of this program, but not the only one, is to maintain the mother-child ties established under the program of full-time residency. The program is also designed to respond to emergency situations.

Eligibility criteria for mother and child

The eligibility criteria are the same as in cases of full-time residency.

Part-time residency may be on weekends and holidays, for example.

Occasional residency may take the form of one weekend per month or less, and of one holiday per year.


A program of part-time or occasional residency provides for sleepover visits. Children shall have access to the same facilities as the participants in the full-time program.

3. Regular visits by the child

Aim: To be part of the continuum of normal activities of everyday life.

This component is an option that is added to the program of regular public visits (for example, after school). These visits are not regarded as a privilege that may be refused.

Eligibility criteria: All women are eligible, except women who are refused visiting rights by the judicial or child protection authorities. All the children registered on the women’s visiting list are acceptable.


B. Problems Involved

The knowledge that we currently have of what is "truly necessary" for the development of the child is insufficient to allow the establishment of definite criteria in this area. As far as the manner of raising a child is concerned, information on what is desirable varies from one culture to another and even from one era to another within a given culture (Korbin, 1987). Moreover, given individual differences, it is difficult to predict the impact of a given situation on a particular child, and especially to develop generally standards in this regard (Guédon et al. (1989)). The difficulty in defining what is "really good" for the optimal development of the child is a problem with which one must come to terms. Moreover, as revealed by the CRJ (1992), "While the majority of parents may be able to handle their parental role and develop harmonious emotional ties with their children, some can manage to do so only with external help."

However, more can be said about the problem in regard to the prevention aspect. Like a number of prevention programs that already exist in the community, the mission of the mother-child program for federally sentenced women is to foster harmonious development of the child and the mother-child relationship. Despite the fact that this program forms part of the continuity of the role of correctional services, its objective is in fact to foster healthy relationships between mothers and their children, giving priority to the welfare of the children. This objective is already part of the continuity of the role of the prevention programs already existing in the community, and it seems unnecessary for us to reinvent the wheel.

These programs are defined on the basis of the complexity and seriousness of the situation in which the parents find themselves. More specifically, the nature of the services to be offered in this type of program is defined by the seriousness of the psychosocial situation of the mother (mental illness, emotional immaturity, substance abuse, etc.), parental incompetence (ignorance regarding care, particular values), the problems of adapting to the role (depression, rejection of the child, etc.) and the poor quality of the surrounding social environment. The ultimate aim of these programs is to prevent neglect of children.

Unlike the majority of these programs, the mother-child program for FSW has not been defined in terms of these problems. The social and demographic study of the FSW population and the findings of the task force show, however, that federally sentenced women have serious psychological and social problems:

• 52% are serving a sentence of more than 5 years.

• Heavy physical, cognitive, social and emotional needs.

• Precarious family situation (single-parent family, violence, conflict, traumatic events, etc.).

• A history of abuse and neglect.

• Abuse of drugs and/or alcohol.

• Self-mutilation (45% in the course of imprisonment)

• Low level of education (70.5%).

• Problems with employment (62%).

A number of studies, including those of Bouchard (1981, 1991), Biller and Solomon (1986) and Zeller (1987), clearly show the relationships that exist among these characteristics (low level of education, single-parent family, history of abuse and neglect, emotional immaturity, substance abuse, poor quality of the surrounding social environment, etc.), and the risks that mothers and children face in experiencing serious problems of adaptation.

While a certain number of women in the FSW population may have no problem in parenting, others may have little information on child development and exhibit poor parenting skills. Moreover, the social environment itself is one of high risk because those in it are likely to encounter all sorts of problems: stress, tolerance of violence, delinquent attitudes, inappropriate language, presence of drugs and syringes, poor ability to tolerate stress, etc.

In short, it can be said that, in the prison context, mother-child dyads form a clientele that can be described as "at risk". We also know that problems are transmitted from generation to generation, creating lines of individuals who are affected in their development. Moreover, it has been shown that many physical, cognitive, social and emotional problems and needs can interfere with the mother-child relationship.

Furthermore, the personal history of each mother-child dyad will involve particular difficulties and needs, because of a number of factors: the personal circumstances of the mother (her problems, plans for her life, the length of her imprisonment, the issues around her desire to live with her child, her level of parenting skills, etc.); the personal circumstances of the child (the child’s age, placement history, length of separation from the mother, current situation, degree of maturity, etc.). The "life situation" of mother-child dyads in a prison environment will be "unique", as is often the case in a rehabilitation situation (C.R.J. (1992)). Consequently, a number of clinical conditions must be established.

Taking these problems as a whole, we see that the problems of the development of the child and of the mother-child relationship are central to the concerns of researchers and workers in social and community institutions who are dealing with clienteles of "high-risk" mothers. In this regard, a number of types of collaboration among agencies are possible.


We have identified risk factors that have been associated in the literature with the problems of neglect of children, including emotional neglect. These factors equally concern the parents, the children and the social environment in which the child will develop. We have noted that these risk factors are found among women in the FSW population, 80% of whom are mothers, and in even more acute form in the prison environment. The importance of these factors calls into question the position that advocates setting up a program from a reference point external to this reality (Corin et al. (1986)). It is important that the correctional service be aware that merely "enriching" the environment is not enough to reduce risks.

On the other hand, we have found that there is information to show how well-structured programs can have a preventative effect and allow children developing in "high-risk" environments to remain in them, provided that measures are taken to adjust the behaviour of parents and interventions are made in relation to the environment. These measures are based on the observation that separation of children from their "real family" is likely to have even more negative effects on their psychosocial development, and that the parent-child relationship is of extreme importance in the process of development. Moreover, the stability and the continuity of a significant parental figure are factors that have been identified as major determinants in the life of the child, both for the child’s harmonious development and for his or her equilibrium (Guédon et al (1989)).

In the present context of programs and services dedicated to high-risk mother-child dyads, it has been observed that professional and non-professional workers are increasingly complementing each other’s efforts, and are pooling their knowledge to develop a plan of individualized services. Agencies are working together, both to develop a type of program suited to specific needs, and to train workers. These major findings will now guide us in answering questions specifically relating to the problems of child development in the context of facilities and services for federally sentenced women.