A new research study launching this month at the University of Hertfordshire is aiming to advance understanding and offer solutions to improve the experiences of women in prison who are separated from their babies.
Dr Laura Abbott, Associate Professor at the University’s School of Health and Social Work, is leading a research team that will undertake observations and interviews with women who have spent time in prison, social workers, midwives, and other decision-makers – to better understand the vulnerabilities of mothers in custody, the resources currently available, and the impact of separation on both parent and child.
Data from the Nuffield Trust shows that 48 prisoners gave birth in England in 2019-20 (an increase on the 37 births in 2018-19), but there is no official data on the number of women sent to prison who already have young children.
Despite a government review in 2020, Dr Abbott believes a lack of joined-up thinking in the system means that this issue continues to be overlooked, and facilities remain under-utilised. Funded by a £300,000 grant from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), this new research will result in policy recommendations on how decisions about mother and baby separations are made, with the ultimate aim of improving the lives of families affected:
“There is some infrastructure in place, such as Mother and Baby Units, but often the people involved in decision-making don’t fully understand the options available or how vulnerable these women are”, Dr Abbott explains. “By carrying out research with people who are on the ground, involved in the day-to-day workings of both our justice and health systems, we’re hoping to influence policy to make meaningful change.
“Separation can have long-term effects on the mothers and babies involved, proving detrimental to their mental health and their future family relationships. This doesn’t always need to happen, and our intention is to shine a light on how these situations arise and how they can be improved”.
Dr Abbott and her team will also work closely with the charity Birth Companions, who work to improve the lives of mothers and babies facing disadvantage and inequality, including those in the criminal justice system. The charity’s Head of Policy, Kirsty Kitchen, explained why it is so important to put women’s lived experiences at the heart of this research:
“All too often women, who are separated from their infants during their time in prison are invisible, navigating their grief and anxiety on their own, with little support and with huge implications for mental health, parent-infant attachment, and long-term outcomes. The voices of those who have been through this experience need to be heard and responded to if we are to reduce avoidable separations and better support those who cannot be with their children.”
More information about research at the University of Hertfordshire can be found at herts.ac.uk/research.
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