Kitchener-Waterloo

Being a mom 'doesn't go away' for prison inmates, program shows

Patrice Butts has been the mother-child coordinator at Grand Valley Institution for Women for almost 20 years, and says the program's goal of fostering strong family relationships has broader community implications.

A handful of children live at the Kitchener prison with their mothers

Patrice Butts, mother child coordinator at Grand Valley Institution for Women, says the initiative's goal is all about "helping everybody get a good start."

You may not know it, but at the minimum security ward of Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, you might see something that would seem out of place: children. 

The prison on Homer Watson Boulevard in Kitchener has been home to a handful of children under the age of five, who live with their mothers in detached buildings known as cottages.

Patrice Butts, the mother child coordinator at Grand Valley and a professor of social work at Conestoga College, said people outside the prison tend to have one reaction when she tells them about the children in prison.

"People think, 'What? You've got a baby in a cell block?' Well, of course not," she said, adding that the children have their own rooms and, frankly, have no idea they are in a prison.

"It's about really helping everybody get a good start," she said. "The idea of planning for a mom and her child and maintaining these relationships and not creating further trauma."
Patrice Butts is the Mother Child co-ordinator at Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

'New ground' for prison

The idea of allowing children to stay with their mothers in prison started back in the early 1990s, when a federal task force released the report Creating Choices.

Before that, Butts said women in prison were treated the same as men, and no thought was given to women who were pregnant or to a woman's relationship with children outside of prison. 

When I meet women, the very first thing out of their mouths is their distress and concern over their children.- Patrice Butts

"It was very new ground for the correctional system and for the women's offender unit," Butts said of the Creating Choices document and the flurry of activity that followed it. 

Soon after Grand Valley Institution for Women opened in 1997, Butts became involved as the mother child coordinator. 

Expanding the program

It's hard to nail down exactly what that job involved in the early days. Butts said she helped develop the program that allowed children to stay with their mothers in prison, but she was also working directly with the women, meeting with them and supporting them through their pregnancies.

She said it soon became clear that the mother child initiative needed to do more to support other woman in the prison whose children were out in the community. 

"When I meet women, the very first thing out of their mouths is their distress and concern over their children," she said. "That, for sure, is a constant. The power of being a mom doesn't go away."

Sentencing the child

So, over the years, the mother child initiative has gone out of its way to support women in fostering strong relationships with their family while they are serving prison sentences. 

Just like children who lose a mother to illness, Butts said children who lose a mother to prison grieve deeply, but often they don't have people in their lives to support or sympathize with them.

They need support and we need to do a really good job to try to help people stay together through this difficult time.- Patrice Butts

They often entertain terrifying fantasies about what is happening to their mother in prison, and it's not until they are able to visit her in prison that those terrors can be set aside.

"We need to really keep in mind that, more often than not, when we sentence a woman we often are sentencing a child or children as well," Butts said. 

"How we deal with that is really, really important to what goes on, then, in our greater community."

'Everybody does better'

Prison may separate a person from community, but Butts said it shouldn't have to separate a mother from her family, and she believes that if family relationships can be maintained "everybody does better."

She recalled one story where a woman was not able to keep her infant with her in prison, but was able to pump breast milk, which was then shipped to the child, who was staying with a foster family. 

When the mother left prison, she was reunited with her child and Butts said mother and child are now living together and have a very healthy relationship.

That's what the mother child initiative is all about, according to Butts.

"They need support and we need to do a really good job to try to help people stay together through this difficult time."

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