Griffith University, the Paul Ramsay Foundation and Queensland Corrective Services will collaborate on an important new project looking to transform the lives of mothers in custody and their children.

Professor Susan Dennison

Project lead Professor Susan Dennison from the Griffith Criminology Institute said mothers in custody and their children are among the most vulnerable and difficult to reach groups in society.

“Prison doesn’t cause all the challenges these families face, but it does present an opportunity to start working with mothers and their children,” Professor Dennison said.

“Typically, mothers enter prison because of a devastating lifecycle of disadvantage and serious adversity that gets worse when they leave.

“Their children experience much of this adversity too, as well as additional strains like grief and trauma from separation, housing and school instability, stigma, and entrenched social exclusion.

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“Women are the fastest growing segment of Australia’s prison population and although there are no nationwide figures on the number of mothers in prison, estimates show more than half have dependent children aged 15 and under, while 85% of women entering prison have been pregnant at some stage in their lives.

“Addressing the needs of these women and their families requires the transformation of correctional approaches in Australia to reduce recidivism and break the devastating and enduring intergenerational cycle of disadvantage.”

The research team includes expertise from the Griffith Criminology Institute and the University’s School of Nursing and Midwifery, working closely with Queensland Corrective Services on the project.

“In this pioneering program of research and action we will use co-creation with corrective services systems, community service providers, policy makers, prisoners, and their families to develop an evidence-informed, holistic system of practice which will make a difference,” Professor Dennison said.

“We will identify and address system gaps and design wrap-around services for women and their children that are proportionate and adaptive to their needs.

“The model will provide continuity of care through extended support for women and their children well beyond release, so they can achieve real and sustainable change.”

Queensland Corrective Services Commissioner Peter Martin said that women in prison overwhelmingly identify as being victims of domestic and family violence.

“We are aware that women have a vastly different trajectory leading to incarceration than men, with common features of poverty, childhood abuse and abusive relationships,” he said.

“We also know that having a parent in prison makes a child many more times likely than their peers to end up incarcerated themselves.

“This is why Queensland Corrective Services is taking a trauma-based approach to women in prison as a part of the Women’s Estate project.

“We are excited to be partnering with Professor Dennison and her research team to identify ways to better support women prisoners and their children to try to break that cycle of incarceration.”

The first stage of the Griffith-led project has been made possible through a partnership with the Paul Ramsay Foundation, whose mission to break cycles of disadvantage in Australia is closely aligned to Griffith’s values.

The challenges facing children whose mothers are in custody are unique, tragic and lead to multiple elements of deep disadvantage,” Paul Ramsay Foundation CEO Professor Glyn Davis AC said.

“With the right partners we know we can do better for these vulnerable children and give them a better chance in the lottery of life.”

Over the next 18 months the project team will work closely with stakeholders to design a co-ordinated delivery of programs in custody and the community and prepare to trial them in a Queensland correctional centre.

“Our long-term goals are to see an improvement in key areas that contribute to entrenched disadvantage,” Professor Dennison said.

“By developing strong partnerships and using an holistic approach to bring government and the not-for-profit sector together with researchers, experts in the community and families with lived experience of incarceration, we can break the cycle of disadvantage and incarceration, create conditions for families to thrive, and demonstrate more effective, sustainable service provision.”

Griffith University Vice Chancellor and President Professor Carolyn Evans acknowledged the generosity of the Paul Ramsay Foundation and said the project would draw on Griffith’s world leading research strengths in both criminology and criminal justice, and nursing and midwifery, to help a sector of the community which was often invisible.

“Griffith has always had a strong sense of social justice and this important project, backed by Ramsay’s philanthropic vision and commitment, will address what is a growing problem of disadvantage”.

The Griffith University research team includes Professor Susan Dennison, Professor Janet Ransley and Associate Professor Tara McGee from the Griffith Criminology Institute and Professor Jenny Gamble from the School of Nursing and Midwifery.