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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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Parenting Roles And Experiences Of Abuse In Women Offenders: Review Of The Offender Intake Assessments


OIAs Review study was to a great extent of an exploratory nature, with the main goal to document the current parental roles and experiences of abuse among women offenders. An attempt was also made to compare the findings of this study with those of the Survey of Federally Sentenced Women (Shaw et al., 1990), while keeping in mind the limitations of this comparison due to the different methods used in these two studies. These limitations, as well as suggestions as to areas where further research seems warranted, are presented bellow.

    In the Survey, data were collected based on individual interviews with incarcerated women with the specific aim of gaining an understanding of the issues under consideration. On the other hand, the source of information for the current study consisted entirely of the Domain Comments of OIAs. This instrument is designed for a different purpose and it was not developed to assess

issues of interest for this study, nor was it expected that its Domain Comments would contain detailed and specific information on issues of parenting and experiences of abuse. OIAs are used upon offenders' admission into an institution with the purpose of assessing their risk/needs in order to develop correctional plans and designate relevant programs. Thus, the OIA itself does not have any specific items or sections for collecting systematic data on women's experiences of abuse. If this information was present in the Domain Comments, it was primarily based on women's own spontaneous disclosure of these experiences. In the case of most of the reviewed OIAs, at least some reference to childhood and adulthood experiences was found in the Domain Comments which allows a general estimate in respect to this issue. If more specific information on the experience of abuse is desired, a study addressing these particular issues is required.

Another limitation of this study is that data from the OIAs regarding various issues were missing to a greater or lesser extent. Although this was taken into consideration in calculating estimates (proportions), this should nevertheless be kept in mind, given that it may have affected the estimated patterns presented in this study. Missing data may have also created seemingly inconsistent results, such as for instance a slight difference in the percentage of adult children women have which was presented in Tables 4 and 5 (11.9%; 12.2% respectively).

Keeping in mind the aforementioned limitations and benefits of OIAs' Domain Comments review, the following conclusions can be offered. With respect to parenting roles, results of both the Survey and the OIAs Review showed that a vast majority of federally incarcerated women are mothers of minor children. Compared to the Survey, in the OIAs Review study a greater proportion of women were mothers. Most of the women in both samples had one to three children, but some had more. In both studies over half of the women (62.4% in the Survey and 52.1% in the OIAs Review) had primary responsibility for at least one of their children prior to offending.

There was a statistically significant difference between the two samples in respect to the living arrangements of those women who were primary careproviders for one or more of their children. There were proportionately more single mothers in the Survey sample, whereas in the OIAs Review sample among those who were primary careproviders for their children, proportionately more women had lived with both their child(ren) and partner.

A note should be made that in some instances it was very difficult to determine living arrangements and women's involvement in childcare. These difficulties did not stem from the manner in which the information was reported, but rather because the lives of some women were characterized by many sudden and unpredictable changes that were inevitably reflected in their childcare roles and in their children's living arrangements. This in turn, as is often the case when data need to be categorized and taken as a "snap shot", made it difficult to define the situation that best described the children's living arrangements. Due to the complex and often very difficult circumstances of women's lives, it was not always possible for them to maintain contact or keep their children with them all the time. Some women lost custody of some of their children due to substance abuse and/or mental health problems, as well as due to previous incarcerations. However, not all of the women's lives were subject to turmoil and instability. Reviewed OIAs clearly showed that for many women, their careproviding role and living arrangements were stable and secure.

With respect to childcare arrangements during the mothers' incarceration, both studies showed that most of the women relied on their children's grandparents, usually maternal grandmothers. In the Survey the second most frequent living arrangement was foster care, whereas in the OIAs Review, it was the father of the child(ren). However, it should be kept in mind that due to the nature of the data, it was not possible to examine whether this difference was statistically significant.

The second most frequent arrangement in this study, that is, the care of children by the father, may be associated with the fact that, compared to the Survey, in the OIAs Review, there was a greater number of women who had lived with their child(ren) and partner (children's father), than as single parents. Thus, it would be reasonable to assume that children would continue to live with their father upon the mother's incarceration. On the other hand, in some cases, children who lived with both parents prior to their mother's incarceration, did not remain to live with their father upon mother's incarceration. The complete data in some cases were missing, thus it was not possible to determine the extent to which and the underlying reasons why some children who lived with both parents changed residences upon their mother's incarceration.

Women's contacts with children during incarceration were also examined. Data here were limited. However, the information that was available suggests that the majority of women had contact with their children during incarceration. The type of contact and whether the woman was the main childcare provider before incarceration, could not often be precisely determined. A rough estimate suggests that the most frequent types of contacts women had with their children were visits and/or phone calls, which in terms of frequency ranged from a phone call per day to an "occasional" call or visit every one or two months. It also appears that most of the women who maintained contact with their child(ren) had lived with them full-time before incarceration. However, it is noteworthy that there were also those women who most likely did not live with their children prior to incarceration, but nevertheless maintained contact with them during this period. It is clear that this issue needs to be examined more closely in future studies, as this may be of great relevance for assisting women with their mothering needs during incarceration.

It is possible that women who had different childcare arrangements prior to incarceration also have different needs in relation to mothering and contacting children during incarceration. It has been noted in the literature (Garcia Coll et al, 1998; Wine, 1992 ) that knowing that they have children on the "outside" and awareness of their role as mothers may represent a major motivation for change that "keeps them going". Even where a woman was not her child's primary careprovider prior to incarceration, being incarcerated and "re-examining" her life may lead her to establish contact with her child. This may raise different issues than in the case of those who were with children full-time prior to incarceration. In order to identify these specific needs, and subsequently respond to them most effectively, the relationship between involvement in childcare prior to and during incarceration needs to be further explored.

It should also be mentioned that there is one very important aspect of the parenting issue that has not been addressed in this study (nor in the Survey) at all. It refers to the possible ways in which children may react to their mothers' incarceration. The literature suggests that such children may develop various behavioral problems, feel extremely ashamed, lack social support or react in many other problematic ways (Shaw, 1992; Stanton, 1980; Wine, 1992). Occasional references to children's reactions in some of the Domain Comments indicate that this could also be an important factor as to whether or not the child and the mother will maintain contact. Furthermore, difficulties encountered by children were identified in some Domain Comments as sources of women's concerns. Thus, in order to fully understand parenting issues for incarcerated women, information relating to the child and his/her circumstances need to be examined as well.

The second purpose of the OIAs Review was to examine available information on women's histories of abuse. Keeping in mind the possible inaccuracy of the provided estimates in respect to this issue, this review of the OIAs data, like the Survey, clearly showed that an extremely high proportion of women indicated having experienced abuse either in childhood or adulthood. In the OIAs Review, the Domain Comments of 78.8% of the women indicated that women disclosed having been abused at some time in their lives, whereas in the Survey, 82% of the women in PFW, and 72% of those serving their sentences in provincial institutions reported abuse (Shaw et al., 1990). Reviewed OIAs' Domain Comments showed that a certain number of women also disclosed specific types of abuse suffered during childhood and adulthood. These clearly indicated that the women were often exposed to more than one type of abuse.

In both the OIAs Review and the Survey, experiences of abuse were more prevalent among Aboriginal than among non-Aboriginal women. The nature of the data precluded statistical comparisons between the two studies on this issue. However, for the sample of this study, a statistically significant difference between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women was found in respect to the disclosure of both childhood/adolescent and adulthood experiences of abuse. In both instances, these experiences were to a greater extent recorded for Aboriginal women.

The extremely high proportions of women who indicated suffering abuse in both studies shows the extent to which this issue is relevant and salient in this population, as has been previously documented (Chesney-Lind, 1997; Comack, 1996; Elisabeth Fry Society, 1994; Laishes, 1997). However, numbers and proportions can only convey certain aspects of the problems they address and are therefore inevitably limited (and limiting). Experiences of abuse that women conveyed which have been categorized and counted in the same way may in fact have very different meanings for those who experienced them, and may differ widely in ways that cannot be captured numerically. Thus, a full appreciation of this problem including an understanding of its impact on women's perceptions of themselves and their lives and the survival mechanisms to which they resorted, would require situating these experiences in the context of their lives. This is clearly beyond the scope of this study.

Data from this study indicate that some women reported that they grew up in positive family environments. This finding is not often addressed in the literature. Similarly, some women reported having warm, positive and accepting relationships with partners during adulthood. In many instances, the same woman would report both positive as well as negative (i.e. abusive) experiences at different times in her life, or in relationships with different people at the same point in her life. This merits specific attention and examination in future research, since knowing the potential "strengths" and resources that women have may allow for a more holistic approach to promoting healing and recovery.

    It was beyond the scope of the OIAs Review study to explore the relationship between the two sets of issues that were examined here, namely, women's parenting roles and their childhood and adulthood experiences of abuse. However, both the data itself, as well as themes that emerged from the review of the Domain Comments clearly indicate that there are many points of convergence in these two aspects of women's experiences. As has been already brought to attention in the literature, certain patterns women were exposed to during their childhood may also emerge in their adult lives as well (Garcia Coll et al., 1998; Chesney-Lind, 1997; Johnston & Rodgers, 1993). Many women offenders grew up in poverty and were brought up by parents or parent-substitutes who had severe substance abuse problems (Chesney-Lind, 1997; Comack, 1996; Sommers, 1995) or were themselves involved with the justice system (Sommers, 1995; Stanton, 1980; Wine, 1992 ). These patterns have recurred in the adult lives of some of these women. However, in spite of the literature pointing out the possibility of intergenerational repetition of such patterns, not much research has been done on the specific determinants of these possible patterns. A greater in-depth exploration is needed, particularly one that would take the perspective of women's own subjectivities and situatedness.

Given the extremely high proportion of women who experienced various forms of abuse and dysfunction in their parental homes, it is of great relevance to examine the "internal models of parenting," that women may have developed under these circumstances. These "internal models" often represent guidelines for one's own parenting style and the relationship a parent establishes with his/her own children (Jenner & McCarthy, 1995). These models do not necessarily represent repetition of the parenting patterns to which one was exposed. They may also represent clear guidelines as to what a parent is determined not to repeat. As literature on "resiliency" indicates, there may be certain aspects in one's "dysfunctional" life that can moderate these effects and allow a person to develop "resistance" (Gilgun, 1991; Valentine & Feinauer, 1993; Werner, 1986). It has therefore already been stressed that women's strengths should be studied together with their difficulties. Review of Domain Comments, as well as women's accounts documented elsewhere (Adelberg & Currie, 1991; Elizabeth Fry Society, 1994; Garcia Coll et al., 1998) indicate that some women are painfully aware that in spite of resisting as much as possible, they have repeated with their children some aspects of the unsatisfactory parenting they received from their parent/parental figures. But other women have stressed that precisely because they were exposed to negative parenting during their own childhood, they were determined (and managed) not to repeat the same pattern with their own children. It is relevant to understand the relationship between one's own parenting and the way an individual was parented as a child, given that relating to a child in a different way than a mother was parented herself, may have healing effect for the mother in relation to dealing with her own childhood experiences. This shows the potential benefits of future research to better understand the relationship between women's growing up experiences, the parenting they were exposed to as children, and the one they established with their own children. Knowing how women were parented and how these experiences affected their own parenting may be a crucial factor in assisting them with their mothering needs during incarceration and subsequent reintegration.

Approaching these problems entirely as expressions of individual personality and locating them solely within an individual would, however, be counterproductive. Certainly women's experiences need to be situated within their own "subjectivities" and understood as stemming from the contexts of their everyday lives as well as family backgrounds.