Treatment of women prisoners and their children highlights South Australia’s lack of social policy innovation – Michael O’Neil

South Australian Centre for Economic Studies (SACES) in the recent past conducted an evaluation of the Victorian Government’s Targeted Women’s Correctional Response (the initiative provides a suite of tailored programs and services to address the specific and complex needs of women prisoners and offenders) to identify the economic impact of the program. Continuing our involvement in prisons and corrections based initiatives, a member of staff has been appointed as an independent advisor on a trial of labour market assistance services for soon to be released prisoners.

A recent article in The Advertiser (12 April, 2017) “Children on the outside looking in” reported that South Australia is the only state that does not have a Mothers and Babies Unit attached to the Women’s Prison to enable the needs of mothers and children up to five years to be met. South Australia once had the mantle of the social reformist/social development state and the closure of Mothers and Babies Unit which operated from 1993 until it was closed in 2005 for unstated “operational needs and priorities” is further testimony to how far we have slipped down the ladder of social (and economic) innovation. The current Minister for Corrections Peter Malinauskas was reported as saying the “…government understood the desire for a mothers and babies unit; however “consideration needs to be given to what is in the best interest of the children, along with other infrastructure needs”’.

South Australia has somewhat of an unfortunate, tainted reputation nationally with respect to prioritising the needs and best interest of children. It took a Royal Commission into FamiliesSA to establish the principle as to ‘what is in the best interest of children’.

We need to look no further than the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child, Principle 6, that reinforces the preferred societal obligations to not separate the mother and the child:

“The child, for the full and harmonious development of his personality, needs love and understanding. He shall, wherever possible, grow up in the care and under the responsibility of his parents, and, in any case, in an atmosphere of affection and of moral and material security; a child of tender years shall not, save in exceptional circumstances, be separated from his mother. Society and the public authorities shall have the duty to extend particular care to children without a family and to those without adequate means of support. Payment of State and other assistance towards the maintenance of children of large families is desirable.”

The Handbook on Women and Imprisonment notes the impact of mothers in prison relative to fathers and potential short terms costs in respect of children, that:

“… when mothers are imprisoned the family will often break up, or as mothers are more often the sole or primary carers within a family, alternative carers will need to be found, which may include state welfare services/institutions. This results in large numbers of children being institutionalized, in state care. Research has also indicated that the children of imprisoned parents are at greater risk of future incarceration themselves.”

The Handbook further notes the potential for future costs where mother and the very young child are separated citing research that “in the United Kingdom, for example, it has been estimated that of the 150,000 children who have a parent in prison, 75 per cent will go on to commit a crime”.

Current ‘operational needs and priorities’ (i.e. current costs) at the very least need to be set against future cost savings through what are termed ‘avoidance costs’. It is important to break the cycle of institutionalisation, including that there needs to be much more debate (and evidence) as to the potential benefits for mother and child of a Mothers and Babies Unit attached to a Women’s Prison. There is evidence to support a reduction in recidivism and additional benefits including a reduction in involvement in child protection and out-of-home care, and links between juvenile and adult justice.

There are potentially significant benefits from a Mothers and Babies Unit, if done well, including addressing health concerns of the mother and child, nutrition, strengthening the bond between the mother and the child while reducing the traumatising effects of separation. Many women prisoners have significant health issues and report past incidents of domestic and personal violence so that to remove an infant or very young child is both an additional penalty and an opportunity lost for positive change, training and effective parenting.

The Victorian Department of Justice and Regulation recently commissioned a review of the literature related to prison-based mother and children programs and their impact on outcomes for children, mothers’ parenting skills and wellbeing, and mothers’ recidivism. While the results of the review were “far from conclusive”, it found “… no evidence that children are harmed and that there appears to be potential to achieve outcomes in each of these three areas (particularly with respect to mothers’ recidivism)”. It also reported that mothers involved in such programs may be considerably more motivated to succeed in other prison-related services (i.e. targeted responses to address the often complex needs of women in prison), including educational and substance abuse programs.

We have no information on what are the ‘operational needs and priorities’ but South Australia remains the only State that does not have a Mothers and Babies Unit attached to the Women’s Prison.

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