Innocent victims of the legal system
Harrowing stories from behind bars
Published Date: 13 February 2008
An estimated 18,000 children are affected each year by the imprisonment of their mother, with one third of them losing their only carer.
We look at an initiative at HMP Low Newton, Durham, to help support women who have or are about to lose a child to compulsory adoption.
What is not known is how many women prisoners lose their children to adoption. For the number who do, the trauma can have tragic and lasting effects.
Now a new project, led by the charity After Adoption and funded by the Cabinet Office, is offering a lifeline to mothers in HMP Low Newton, Durham, who have lost children to compulsory adoption, or who are at risk of doing so.
It's a triumph that this leading adoption charity, with offices in Newcastle, has launched the initiative, called insideoutside, to support and help birth mothers through the trauma of the separation.
The project is part of the Government's new initiative – Adults Facing Chronic Exclusion (ACE), and aims to help such mothers turn their lives around and support them to play a positive role in society.
Nearly 50 per cent of women sentenced to prison are mothers, of whom two thirds have children under the age of 10.
And while it is unclear how many women lose their children to adoption, this new initiative will help them through the pain and trauma while inside and support them on the outside.
Working with women in Low Newton and also HMP Styal, Cheshire, After Adoption will provide a co-ordinated package.
As well as individual counselling and support groups, the programme will help birth mothers in prison, on remand and on their release to understand and cope with the compulsory adoption of their children.
Working in partnership with a range of services including housing, mental health, drug and alcohol services, After Adoption will help mothers work through grief over the loss of a child and potential prejudice on release from prison, encouraging positive relationships and reducing the risk of any subsequent children being removed.
The wellbeing of current and potential future children is key throughout the initiative; helping adopted children understand their background and providing support during and after the adoption process.
Lynn Charlton, Chief Executive of After Adoption said: "Losing children through compulsory adoption while in prison can leave parents vulnerable to ongoing mental health problems and cyclical deprivation on release from prison.
"To date there has been limited support available to help them cope with the trauma of the situation.
"insideoutside will ensure parents in Low Newton and Styal prisons receive the help they need and will contribute to helping children removed from their care understand the circumstances that led to their adoption.
"Often these families come from disadvantaged sectors of our society and desperately need support to help them cope with the issues they have to deal with.
We are very pleased that the Government has recognised the importance insideoutside will have, helping these parents and their children, and giving them a chance to play a positive role in society."
Founded in 1990, After Adoption is a voluntary adoption agency and a leading authority on adoption, with its work focused on providing support to adopted children and adults, adoptive families and those who have given children up for adoption.
With one in four people in the UK connected to adoption, it is also committed to increasing awareness of adoption and the complex issues surrounding it. The charity provides a wide range of support services, including helping birth relatives deal with loss, supporting those searching for a relative, working with adoptive families, placing children with suitable families and providing counselling and information to all those affected by adoption.
* For more information visit www.afteradoption.org.uk or call the ActionLine on: 0800 0568 578 open Monday, Wednesday and Thursday (9-6pm), Tuesday (9-8pm) and Friday (9-4pm).
Harrowing stories from behind bars
Sharon had her child removed from her when she was admitted to prison.
During the first meeting with After Adoption, she was distressed, confused and incredibly unhappy.
Sharon talked about overwhelming emotions and unbearable guilt.
She would cut herself, creating a physical pain, to try to numb the feelings of immense loss and uncertainty.
At that time she said: "I feel suicidal. I cannot cope. I am more depressed than ever and feel like I can't carry on. I want to crawl back into my shell.
"It feels like my insides have left me to be with my children. I feel so guilty."
Working with After Adoption, Sharon received counselling to help her through the trauma of the separation and to work through the grief of her loss. This has brought her a feeling of enormous relief.
Although the heartache is still there, Sharon has learnt to cope and to realise there is still a part for her to play in her children's lives, albeit a very different part from that of raising them herself.
She says: "I am alright in here. It's not long for me to go now and I just wish my children were with me when I get out of here, but that is impossible. I hope that they come back looking for me when they are 18 years old."
Nina was a drug addict who had her son removed prior to her going to prison for a violent crime. At first when she met with After Adoption, she was difficult, erratic and confused.
Nina had lost her child to adoption and felt let down by the very same system she had turned to for support.
In her early days in prison engagement and trust were major issues for Nina and it took time and patience to establish these. She had lost her son, and was unable to focus on anything but her grief.
However, after accepting support from the After Adoption, Nina began to move on and changed her focus to rebuilding her life. In working with After Adoption she has received counselling and group support sessions and has written down some life history information for her child.
Nina is also able to write occasional letters to her son and receives letters from the adoptive family maintaining indirect contact.
She has become a willing and co-operative young woman. Together with her project worker she has overcome her setbacks and produced some meaningful work.
Names have been changed to protect the women's identity. Picture posed by model.
Vital work could help so many
"IF the work we are doing is effective it will form future Government policy," says Peter Sandiford, Head of Service for After Adoption.
He is responsibile for the North East, Manchester, London and the South East, supporting people affected by adoption or the permanent placement of a child away from their birth family.
This includes adopted children, adoptive families, birth parents and adults who have been adopted.
Children are removed from their birth parents for many reasons, but common to them all is the principle of the removal being in the best interests of the child.
The effect on the birth parent is likely to be traumatic with an extreme sense of bereavement and loss.
The groups where this is most likely to happen are those who have already been socially excluded due to one or more of the following: drug and alcohol abuse, having a mental health issue or learning disabilities, domestic violence or being a care leaver.
Peter is confident of the success of insideoutside, after a trial run at Styal prison in Cheshire.
He said: "There was a change and positive outcomes for women in prison who had lost children to adoption.
"It isn't just centred in the prison.We are going to work with women when they are going back out into the community and provide a package of support with probabtion and other organisations to help the women develop a different life as well as keep future children."
It's no use simply jailing women
Today there are some 4,454 women in prison compared with 1,811 in 1994.
Following the tragic suicides of six women at Styal prison in Cheshire, the Home Secretary asked Baroness Jean Corston to conduct a review of vulnerable women in the Criminal Justice System.
Throughout 2006 Baroness Corston and her team visited overcrowded women's jails, local women's centres and alternatives to custody for women across the UK.
The Corston review was published In March 2007. Lucie Russell, director of SmartJustice, which has been lobbying the Government to change the way we deal with women who commit crime, said: "The Corston review was a comprehensive blueprint for a more effective way of treating women who offend, but with no money behind the Government's support for the recommendations, nothing will fundamentally change.
"Rather than simply putting women behind bars, it is essential to address the reasons that lead to their offending.
"This includes debt, domestic violence and addiction – as well as making them do compulsory work in the community to payback for what they have done.
More effective alternatives would make communities safer as they will effectively tackle the reasons women are commiting crime in the first place.
Sad statistics of women prisoners
* Most of the rise in the female prison population can be explained by harsher sentencing. A woman is seven times as likely to receive a custodial sentence in a magistrates' court than 10 years ago.
* Eight in 10 women are jailed for non-violent crimes. In 2004 more women were sent to prison for theft and handling stolen goods than any other crime.
* Two in three women released from prison in 2002 were reconvicted within two years of release, rising to eight out of 10 for female shoplifters.
* The majority of women are in prison for very short sentences. In 2004 nearly two out of three were sentenced to custody for six months or less.
* Around one in three women prisoners lose their homes, and often their possessions, while in prison. 41 per cent do not have accommodation organised on release.
* Over a third of all adult women in prison had no previous convictions.
* Nearly one in three women prisoners are from minority ethnic groups.
* Two thirds of women prisoners have a drug problem, two thirds have mental. health problems and half have been victims of domestic violence.
* Nearly 18,000 children are separated from their mothers by imprisonment each year and only five per cent remain in the family home.