The Role of the Counsellor working with incarcerated mothers:
Supporting the process of family re-unification.
Student Id: 123296
Submitted as Assessment Task Two: Forensic Practice KHA 612
Due date: 14 October 2013
Tutor: Dr Janine Haines
The role of the counsellor in an area of forensic practice
The area of forensic practice that will be discussed in this paper is the role of the counsellor working with incarcerated mothers in supporting the process of re-unification with their families post-release. Research suggests that there is a significant impact on families when mothers are incarcerated, and the prolonged period of separation due to incarceration has an adverse impact on mother-child attachment (Stanley & Byrne, 2000; McGrath, 2012; Murray & Murray, 2010). The perceived lack of control over the life circumstances of their children contribute to increased levels of distress for both mother and child (Stanley & Byrne, 2000; Berry & Eigenberg, 2003). Of further concern is the risk that the level of psychopathology (depression, anxiety) of women is likely to increase when they are incarcerated, due to increased feelings of guilt and anxiety from leaving their children behind (Arditti & Few, 2008). Counsellors can work in a multi-faceted role (assessment, facilitator, clinician, mentor, program development/implementation) to address the needs of incarcerated mothers to transition through the ‘third space’ (Bartels & Gaffney, 2011) and retain their parental responsibilities while they remain incarcerated.
It is acknowledged that the factors that contribute to criminality are multi-faceted (social, familial, psychological) and women who are incarcerated are likely to have experienced substance use addiction, family violence, and trauma associated symptoms (depression, anxiety) arising from childhood abuse/neglect (Arditti & Few, 2006, 2008). The impact of the ‘triple threat’ on the lifestyles of incarcerated mothers pre-sentence would increase the likelihood that there would be levels of family dysfunction within their families of origin, and an impairment to their capacity to care for their child/ren. This may mean that they may already be struggling to maintain positive mother-child attachments, and their incarceration further distances them from their children. Alternatively, it may mean that they are the primary or sole carers of their children, and consequently their children are likely to be placed in the care of family members, or foster-carers; the caring or ‘mothering’ role’ has been removed from the incarcerated mother and transferred to someone else. From a child’s perspective, studies indicate that children of incarcerated parents are likely to suffer poor health, hostile/aggressive behaviours, poor school performance, anxiety and depression (Stanley & Byne, 2000). It is a common theme for children to experience conflicting feelings (shame, guilt, sorrow, anger) toward their incarcerated parents (McGrath, 2012). From a mother’s perspective, their level of psychopathology (depression, anxiety, and trauma) is likely to increase when they are incarcerated, due to increased feelings of guilt and anxiety from leaving their children behind (Arditti & Few, 2008).
Incarcerated mothers have increased difficulties maintaining their status role of ‘mother’ as often they do not have control over the placement of their children, or may not approve of the custodial arrangements (Berry & Eigenberg, 2003). This lack of ‘power’ can increase their level of distress, and combined with prison environments which may not provide adequate ‘mother-child’ friendly programs, contribute to their de-identifcation as mother that can contribute to an impairment of the mother-child attachment. With the combined impacts of ‘role strain’ and the pre-existence of the ‘triple threat’, incarcerated mothers have a need to be supported to address their complex issues so that they can continue to meet their parental responsibilities while incarcerated. Kazura (2000) states that incarcerated parents have expressed their need to retain their parental identity and actively contribute to their family commitments. His study supports the view that family support programs in prisons can improve family reunification by addressing parenting, social support and life skills training for incarcerated parents.
A review of the current literature reveals a commonality of issues that are of concern to incarcerated mothers. The predominant concern related to the barriers that impact on the frequency of contact with child/ren. Studies suggest incarcerated mothers have a greater chance of successful reunification with their child/ren when prison environments support frequent contact, and maintain extended visitations through the provision of Mother-Child units (MCU’s) (Martin, 1997; Snyder, Carlo & Coates, 2002; Bartels & Gaffney, 2011). A further emergent theme is the need to link the life of mothers in prison with their life in the community. Bartels et al (2011) describes this gap as the ‘third space’ and posits that prison programs need to focus on the transition planning and effective management of post-release support for incarcerated mothers.
A study on program effectiveness identified six domains that have an influence on successful outcomes for re-integration: 1) personal conditions; 2) social network/environment; 3) accommodation; 4) criminal justice system; 5) rehabilitation/counselling support; 6) employment and training support (Graffam, Shinkfield, Lavelle & McPherson, 2005). Gorsuch (1999) conducted a study on ‘untreatable’ female offenders and has identified four consistent themes reported by the female cohort: 1) feelings of isolation and need for social contact; 2) a confiding relationship; 3) lack of autonomy and control; 4) lack of future and the need for consistency and stability. He asserts that it is the ‘helping’ aspect as opposed to the ‘treatment’ aspect has greater impact and argues the importance of ‘attachment’ in therapy as incarcerated women have a high incidence of insecure/anxious attachment histories.
Evidence suggests that there is a general consensus among forensic practitioners that ‘What Works’ are programs that provide a ‘holistic’ and integrated approach to address the complex needs of incarcerated mothers. Criticism has been levelled against the narrow focus of traditional approaches to counselling that are time-limited and address only specific ‘problem areas’ (sex offending, anger management), and counselling should concentrate on a therapeutic community model that focuses on the dyadic relationship of client and counsellor (Towl, 2011; Bartels et al 2011). McGee & Gilbert (2010) further posit the need to focus treatment to ‘best fit’ the socio-demographic aspects of incarcerated women.
Godfrey & Loewenthal (2010) assert that the prison environment poses certain restrictions on the counsellor in that the prison environment is not conducive to the provision of effective therapeutic interventions. They cite counsellor concerns of the inability to maintain a ‘consistent therapeutic frame’ in prisons because of the lack of consistent and stable places in which to conduct their interventions. The therapeutic environment is fostered when the client feels safe and this occurs when there is stability and predictability of routine that can be undermined when there is a lack of provision of therapeutic narrative and physical ‘space’. It is further considered that the perception of a power imbalance between client and counsellor can impede the counselling relationship as the client may feel uncomfortable with disclosure to the counsellor if they fear that the counsellor is in collusion with the prison system.
Counselling involves an interactive process between the client and counsellor that can result in change to behaviour, cognitions and feelings. The counselling process can be described in three stages: Stage One – Initial disclosure; Stage two – In-depth exploration; Stage three – Commitment to action (Welfel & Patterson, 2005). This process does not remain linear as there is a constant interplay of circumstances that promote or impede the process of change. One impediment may be due to the fact that the client may not recognise problematic behaviour and are less likely to be motivated to engage with counselling, or alternatively the problem has been defined by others and therefore engagement with treatment commences with low level of problem recognition (Day, Bryan, Davey & Casey, 2006). These authors assert that the assimilation model (the client is supported to attain self awareness of the problem) is more effective to promote change.
The role of the counsellor within a prison system can be multi-faceted or specific to assessments at point of incarceration. This may be an assessment on the mental and physical health or the risk status of a violent offender, in which case the interaction between client and counsellor will be time-limited. As stated previously, traditional forms of counselling need to evolve from the narrow-focused perspective into integrative, flexible and therapeutic models that target individual and family-friendly aspects of the incarcerated mother. The role of the counsellor working within this framework will be one of supporter and mentor, facilitator in the process of motivation to change.
In order to adequately describe the role of the counsellor working with incarcerated mothers, a review of mother and child programs that are currently provided within the Australian prison system has been completed to describe the variant nature of the counsellor’s role. All programs prescribe to the principle of current best practice and the best interest of the child.
The Mothers and Children Program (NSW). This program provides for children of mothers’ who are serving full-time sentences. There are various aspects to this program which include provision of a Kidsafe Program, and domestic violence courses, which incarcerated mothers’, are required to complete. A primary role of a counsellor in this instance will be to assess the suitability of referral to these programs, and to provide a supportive role in assisting the client to maintain their engagement and motivation with their programs. The Mothers and Children Program (VIC). This program is conducted at the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre and Tarengower Prison and employs a support worker who implements parenting programs. This program also employs a Maternal Child Health Nurse to further provide child health support. The Bandyup Womens Prison (WA) – Good Beginnings. This program is jointly facilitated by the prison and Good Beginnings (NGO) and conducts parenting programs to incarcerated mothers. This program further provides post-release individual counselling to mothers and their children. The Queensland Corrections Service QLD) – provides case planning and support for mothers, babies and children, and a parenting program. Parenting support units are available within the prison facility and an assessment process is undertaken. The above programs require the counsellor to perform assessment, support and case planning roles and some aspects of program support are specialised (Child Health Nurse), and therefore referrals would be facilitated by the counsellor to these services.
A family support counsellor would work with mothers and their families to promote healthy and functional relationships, to educate on child development and support parental skill development. Essentially, the counsellor will help mother’s continue to be mothers and therefore assist in the maintenance of the parental relationship to promote positive opportunities for reunification. All Australian prisons have various offender rehabilitation programs that are directly related to substance abuse, domestic violence and education and training, counselling and support. The counselling roles in these services would provide assessment, support and intervention to individual clients based on needs and level of dysfunction. Evidence suggests that effective therapeutic outcomes are a consequence of the strength and integrity of the counselling relationship, fostered by strengths focused micro behaviours such as making encouraging statements, making positive comments about the client and greeting the client with a smile (Duff & Bedi, 2010). It is further acknowledged that counsellors are most effective when they take on a helping role as it has been consistently reflected through the literature, mothers have expressed a need to be helped – help with learning to become better mothers, help in addressing their substance use, help to develop better social skills, help to transition back into their families. A prison study further identified that offenders consider the importance of formal and informal sources of help and value people who listen to them and have the skills and ability to support them (Mitchell & Latchford (2010).
Godfrey et al (2011) alludes to the issue of the power imbalance between the counsellor and client, by virtue of the involuntary disposition of the client. He states that the prison exudes power by exerting control of the client and that ‘keys are the strongest symbol of power’. The counsellor who has keys will automatically be seen to be the more powerful and this may have an adverse impact on the therapeutic relationship. Counsellors will make assessments on women in prison that are often influenced by a counsellor’s theoretical orientation that determines what is assessed (Milner & O’Byrne, 2003). These authors posit that the assessment process is based on a power relationship as the counsellor holds the discretion on whether a client is accepted or not. Godfrey et al (2011) further asserts that the ‘therapeutic frame’ is often frustrated by lack of rooms, lack of confidentiality of client disclosures due to security concerns, blurred time boundaries, which render the counsellor role as ineffective. This can further frustrate the development of the therapeutic relationship between counsellor and client when issues of confidentiality and privacy cannot be guaranteed.
Research highlights the potential harm to children that can occur when they are separated from their mothers and evidence also suggests that mother’s who offend generally present with issues of depression, substance abuse and family violence. There is an identified need to support mothers to maintain their parental responsibilities while they are incarcerated. It is acknowledged that effective programs are ones that provide a holistic and integrated approach to address the multivariate needs of incarcerated mothers. The role of the counsellor is instrumental in the facilitation of change in the family and individual circumstances of the incarcerated mother, to allow for the successful reunification with her family on release.
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