In the paper, published in the Probation Journal, it was argued that criminal offending did not necessarily equate to bad parenting and that “promoting the relationship between incarcerated mothers and their children should form an integral part of their prison experience”.
According to the paper, entitled ‘Supporting incarcerated mothers in Ireland with their familial relationships: A case for the revival of the social work role’, there is an argument for “reviving the role of supportive social work practitioners to work alongside incarcerated mothers in an effort to retain and realise their parental rights and duties and to maintain relationships with their children”.
It states that there are “significant gaps in supportive services for mothers and children affected by incarceration owing to the lack of a social work role within the Irish Prison System”.
Of the 13,408 people sent to prison in Ireland in 2014, 19.1% were female. Between 2001 and 2014, female committals increased more than 177%.
Two of the country’s 14 prisons accommodate women: Limerick Female Prison and the Dóchas Centre in Dublin.
According to the paper, the Dóchas Centre is the only prison to accommodate babies and there is a dedicated mother and baby unit, but it is located within the general prison campus; “therefore, mothers and babies move freely among the general female prison population, some of whom have been committed of crimes against children thus posing serious child protection concerns”.
It argues that supporting women and families through community-based alternatives to incarceration is proven to reduce recidivism and the average annual cost of supervising a probation order is €5,000, compared to a “colossal” €65,542 per prisoner.
“Unfortunately there remains no social workers employed within the Irish Prison System,” say the report’s authors, adding that “social work is delivered in a sparing capacity and is relied on by external services”.
The study states: “There is no creche or professionally trained childcare worker available in the Irish Prison Service and mothers must consume a full-time parental role unless fortunate enough to co-parenting with a father, grandparent, or supportive relative on the outside.”
It says social work should have “a clear presence” within the Irish Prison Service, including to maintain relationships while in jail “with an eye to successful reunification post-incarceration”.
Donal O’Malley, spokesman for the Irish Association of Social Workers, said: “While many probation officers are qualified social workers, the majority have not registered with CORU [Health & Social Care Professionals Council].”
The research was conducted by Sinead O'Malley and Carmel Devaney, who are affiliated to the Child and Family Research Centre at NUI Galway. It also features as a chapter in a new book entitled 'Mothering Justice: Working with Mothers in Criminal and Social Justice Settings'.