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‘Society has written them off’: Research reveals challenges for incarcerated moms

David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio

Missouri’s incarceration rate for women is among the highest in the country. 

The majority of these women have children, yet little research has examined the effects of incarceration on mothers specifically.

Shannon Cooper-Sadlo, a professor in the Saint Louis University School of Social Work, has been working to understand how formerly incarcerated moms negotiate the trauma and stress of imprisonment, while trying to reintegrate into their families. She spoke with St. Louis Public Radio’s Shahla Farzan about her research on the topic.

Shahla Farzan: You interviewed a dozen women in Missouri who had at least one child and had spent two or more years in prison for reasons connected to drugs, alcohol or other nonviolent offenses. Can you walk me through some of the challenges these women faced while trying to be mothers to their children from prison?

Shannon Cooper-Sadlo: The women that I interviewed did not want to have daily contact with their children because they felt like it was too hard on the families. The child would have this reaction of ‘Why is mommy behind bars? Why can't I hug her? Why can't I see her?’ So the moms didn't want to put that extra burden on the families. They were also very clear that jails and prisons were not a place for kids and that visiting was an incredibly scary experience for the children. It was also really hard for the moms to not be able to hug them, not be able to tell them when they were going to be coming home. It was easier to have limited contact in order to minimize that level of distress in the meetings. 

Farzan: Many of the women had to relinquish guardianship in various ways while they were in prison. For the women who were able to reunite with their kids after they got out of prison, that process of re-establishing their position as mothers was often really challenging. Can you explain why?

Cooper-Sadlo: A lot of times, mothers think they can just kind of step back into that role without realizing that there has to be some repair that is made to that relationship. Because life has gone on for these kids and they've adapted and learned to adjust. And neither person is the same. You may also have situations where whoever the caretaker was while the mother was incarcerated isn't ready to give up the kids or is in a power struggle with mom about how are we going to raise the children. There's not a whole lot of services that can help with that. There's this kind of idea that we're just going to plop women back into the role of mother, without providing her with any resources to help mend some of those relationships that have been damaged by the substance abuse and by the separation due to incarceration.

Farzan: Several of the women you spoke with remained estranged from their children, is that right?

Cooper-Sadlo: Yes, some of the older women really lost that relationship because they were angry that the children didn't just accept them back. They didn't understand that there needed to be some repairs at the time that they were children. What they said is, "As adults, now I understand that you are angry and you have a right to be angry. But I'm still your mother and I'll be here."

Farzan: You interviewed a pretty small of group of women, all recruited from the same treatment facility, and you acknowledge that it can be problematic to try to make broader conclusions about incarcerated moms as a whole based on this sample. But all of the women you interviewed described a lack of services available to help them transition back to normal life after prison. What resources specifically did they need that they didn’t have access to?

Cooper-Sadlo: Financial assistance, food, housing, as well as individual therapy, family therapy. The problem is when we only focus on one and not the other, people get lost. So really looking at, what are we offering women so that when they come out of prison they're healthier than when they went in? That, I think, is the biggest piece that we're missing. We're incarcerating people and they're worse when they come out, but we expect different results. We expect them to behave in a different way even though we haven't provided them with the services that they need to reintegrate effectively.

Farzan: Many of the women you spoke with described the stigma they faced when they re-entered society after being in prison. Many of them said they were labeled as criminals and unfit mothers and that had a very deep effect on them.

Cooper-Sadlo: In our culture, we pit mothers against each other. You know, ‘you're a good mom’ and ‘you're a bad mom.’ Just by the fact that these women have children and a substance abuse history and a felony record, society has written them off as terrible people. I think that we have a very myopic view of what it means to be a good mother. There were a lot of stories from the transcripts about women who were using substances, but they were keeping their children safe. They were leaving them with safe people, so that the children never saw or were never a part of that culture. Or they were choosing not to see them from prison because it was too stressful for the children. These women, even if they weren't participating in the act of mothering, they still considered themselves mothers. My takeaway is really about developing an empathy for women who have gone against what it means to be a mother in our society. And to recognize that mothering happens in different ways and everybody is doing the best that they can.

Farzan: These women were up against some really steep odds, and almost all of them were reincarcerated at least once after being released from prison. But you also found that they had made a lot positive changes in their lives and stayed connected with their kids and with their communities. Talk to me a little about that.

Cooper-Sadlo: When given the opportunity and given the resources and people having faith in them and having hope in them, they have gone on to do great things. They take care of their grandchildren, they take care of their ailing parents, they want to go back into the community and help other women who are currently going through what they’re going through. They really start to see themselves as having something to offer, where the community says, you’ve got nothing, because in this one area, you haven’t lived up to our expectations.

Follow Shahla on Twitter @shahlafarzan

Shahla Farzan is a PhD ecologist and science podcast editor at American Public Media. She was previously a reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.