Distrust of social services a significant barrier to engaging mothers in the justice system

A new report argues the journeys of mothers in the criminal justice system who have had children removed from their care needs to be better understood.

05/11/21

Distrust of social services a significant barrier to engaging mothers in the justice system

The ‘Counting the Cost of Maternal Imprisonment’ report from Crest Advisory says maternal imprisonment also has a high cost for the taxpayers who fund the agencies charged with picking up the pieces in the longer term.

Its research found that a “deep distrust” of local authority social services, compounded by poor communication and information sharing, forms a “significant barrier” to engaging mothers with services which could help prevent them from offending and support prolonged desistance.

It says practitioners and policy makers now understand parental imprisonment as an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE), but argues that maternal imprisonment has a far greater impact on children than paternal imprisonment, since mothers are more often the sole or primary carer.

The research finds that the effects of maternal imprisonment can be severe and long-lasting on children, leading to exclusion from school, increased vulnerability to exploitation, mental health issues and youth crime, ultimately leading to incarceration.

It says children are not routinely offered targeted support to deal with the acute trauma of separation from their mother which could reduce the impacts, claiming the financial and social cost of this missed opportunity is significant. Data showed that interventions with children affected by maternal imprisonment were costing the taxpayer as much as £265,008 per family when the cost of the mother's custodial sentence is taken into consideration.

Current sentencing guidelines are designed to ensure judges and magistrates consider sole or primary carer status as a mitigating factor. However, Crest’s research suggests that awareness of – and application of – these guidelines is low.

“Ultimately, as many of the mothers we spoke to emphasised, it is children who bear the consequences of maternal imprisonment. It is vital that agencies come together with comprehensive, integrated strategies to mitigate the huge societal costs of sending mothers to prison,” the report said.

“The costs of maternal imprisonment on mothers, their children and on the exchequer cannot be addressed by one agency alone but must be the work of the whole system which it activates; from safer neighbourhood teams and schools to probation workers and social services.”

The report argues data collection on maternal status is inconsistent, limiting the ability of relevant agencies to understand the scope and scale of those affected by maternal imprisonment. It also finds that there is often a reluctance to disclose maternal status for fear of social services involvement.

The prison system was also found to not sufficiently recognise the trauma of separation from children, with mothers experiencing significant emotional distress which prisons are not equipped to deal with. Behaviour linked to this distress can be labelled as aggressive, which Crest says perversely counts against mothers in procedures related to contact with their children. Practical barriers within the system were also said to undermine the ability of mothers to maintain contact with their children, including ROTL processes, prison transfers and closed prison conditions.

The report argues that maternal rights are often undermined by poor relationships with social services.

“A lack of consistency from social workers in their approach to prison visits and contact with children creates a postcode lottery for mothers,” the report said, adding: “Insufficient steps are taken to ensure mothers can engage in local authority meetings and court proceedings related to their children’s care.”

Ultimately, the report finds that opportunities to divert mothers out of the criminal justice system are being missed, with the removal of children by social services being a common trigger for substance misuse and toxic relationships which can lead to further offending.

“It is likely that there is a significant cohort of women in prison who are mothers whose children were removed some time prior to the offence for which they were given a custodial sentence.

“The journey of mothers who have experienced the removal of a child into the criminal justice system is not sufficiently recognised or understood, nor are these mothers captured by current data collection systems.”

As a result of the findings, the report’s authors suggest a renewed focus on reducing maternal imprisonment through community alternatives to custody for women, as well as recommending the Ministry of Justice and the Department of Education should produce a joint policy framework on maternal imprisonment.

“A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) should be developed between the DfE and HMPPS setting out key principles on how both services work with mothers and children affected by maternal imprisonment, counteracting the current postcode lottery.”

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