Nova Scotia

Halifax support group provides comfort to families of those behind bars

A monthly support group for families of incarcerated people is providing a service that organizers say is sorely lacking in Halifax.

MOMS Halifax holds monthly peer support meetings

MOMS Halifax provides a kind of support that organizers say is lacking in Nova Scotia. (Shutterstock)

A monthly support group for families of incarcerated people is providing a service that organizers say is sorely lacking in Halifax.

MOMS, or Mothers Offering Mutual Support, was started by Dalhousie student Leah Crowell after she heard through her master's research on incarcerated young adults that the families of people behind bars were struggling.

"[MOMS] started out of need," Crowell said. "Families were really almost completely distraught.… There's guilt, there's anger, there's depression, there's stress. It affects the siblings of the families deeply, and without someone to talk to in a safe space where you know that people aren't judging you … it was clearly a very lonely place for those families to be."

Following the model of a similar group in Ottawa, the group — which started with two members and has grown to four over the past year — meets monthly to swap practical tips and offer emotional support.

'I was doing the time'

For Helen, that support has allowed her to rejoin the world that she'd left behind when her son was incarcerated. 

"For a little while, I was doing the time, right alongside my son."

Helen, whose last name is withheld to respect the group's policy of anonymity for its members, said before she joined MOMS, carrying on a normal conversation had become impossible.

"I'm a mother with children. One of the first things we talk about at lunch when the ladies go to lunch is, 'How are the kids?' … Well, in my mind, all of a sudden, I couldn't go to those lunches anymore, because how was I going to talk about my children?"

Helen said the uncertainty and worry quickly became overwhelming.

"I kept it bottled up for a long time."

Support for one more day

Before the first meeting of MOMS, Helen was terrified. 

But after meeting the other members in Halifax, and Skyping with members of the group in Ottawa, she said she didn't just find answers to questions like how to prepare a character reference for her son; she also felt as thought a weight had been lifted from her shoulders.

"A lot of the information you're getting when you come to these meetings … it supports you to go on one more day."

A year ago, Helen said it would have been impossible for her to talk about her experience or even fully support her son. Now, she said she'll speak to anyone who will listen, "and a lot of that is due to Leah and the other members of the MOMS group."

Group aims to expand

Crowell said she hopes the group, which is open to all family members — not just mothers — will continue to grow and eventually cover other regions of the province. 

She said they're also looking at expanding the kinds of support they offer, including preparing written resources for the families of inmates on topics like arranging bail and reintegrating into the family after release. They hope to make the resource available at libraries throughout the Halifax municipality.

In the meantime, the group will continue to show families that they might feel isolated, but they're not alone.

"It's probably one of the most unique experiences of grief and pain that humans could endure, because if you lose someone and they pass away, there's a closure there. There's no closure for [these families]. So the support magic is definitely in being with others who have experienced it."

With files from CBC's Information Morning