When I read the recent Female Offenders Strategy, I found myself repeatedly agreeing out loud with much of the content. Yes, absolutely, women’s offending patterns are different from men and therefore require a different response. Yes, indeed – women will benefit from gender responsive interventions delivered within a trauma informed model and yes, yes, yes – we need to recognise the impact of custodial sentence upon children, the harsh reality of that separation.
It is a deeply troubling statistic that when a mother goes into prison, only 5% of children remain in the family home, and that maternal imprisonment affects 17,000 children in England and Wales each year.
Our mission at Trevi House is to, wherever safely possible, avoid separation of mother and child. Whilst we work primarily with women in recovery from drugs and alcohol, we are working with many of the same issues and indeed many of the women we work with have previously had significant involvement in the criminal justice system.
In this short film I talk to one of our residents who has been to prison. She tells me that she felt safe in prison and that when she was there stopped using drugs. However, upon release, she quickly relapsed into both drug use and offending. The revolving door kept turning.
She also shares that she has, in her past, experienced trauma. Whether we are working with a woman in recovery from addiction or recovery from criminality, lasting change will not be sustained unless we actually address the underlying issues, whether that is childhood trauma, sexual violence, domestic abuse or mental health.
She also speaks about the fact that as a mother, she committed crime in order to buy nappies. When we are working with mothers in recovery, whether that be recovery from addiction or criminality, we must not underestimate the impact upon them of motherhood.
The women that we support at Trevi often voice experiencing a deep sense of shame about how their addiction has affected their children. They know that society judges them harshly, as they frequently judge themselves. Ironically, that stigma and fear have all too often served as a barrier to seeking help, and thus a vicious cycle ensues whereby things spiral out of control.
We should remember too though, that motherhood can also serve as a wonderful motivation for change, and certainly we witness that at Trevi House. We see mothers with the most complex of histories and entrenched behaviours, who make phenomenal life changes. As one mum said to me, when she is not sure what to do, she stops and looks into her sons’ eyes, and that helps her make the right decision.
The mum in this film talks about her hopes for the future, and her confidence about what life may now offer. She is leaving Trevi House having had the opportunity to address her underlying issues and learn more positive coping mechanisms, all whilst having her child in her care.
This summer at a local event, I met a father with his new baby. He told me about how he had been to Trevi as a child with him mum when he was a little boy, nearly 20 years ago. Trevi House had given him back his mum and given him back his childhood. He didn’t have to go into care.
Imagine if some of the 17,000 children affected by maternal imprisonment could be given that chance? Personally, I am excited and heartened by the potential opportunity that the community rehabs offer as an alternative to prison. I hope that the team at Trevi House will be able to use our 25 years of experience of keeping families together to help shape this provision.
Thank you to the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner for Devon and Cornwall for producing this short film on our behalf.