Ashley Horsey, Chief Executive of Commonweal Housing writes about his experiences of setting up a scheme that reunites mothers with their children on release from prison.
“I have gained so much confidence and have gone from feeling a failure in society to being a fully paid up member of society”.
On leaving prison, women are often denied the opportunity to be re-united with their children, simply because they are not deemed to have suitable accommodation. Women will all too often lose their homes when imprisoned even when in prison for only a relatively short time. We also know that 97% of children have to leave the family home when their mother is imprisoned. Obviously this is unfair. We wanted to help tackle this injustice and this is the reason Commonweal Housing first set up the pilot Re-Unite project, in partnership with Housing for Women and Women in Prison.
Re-Unite was developed to demonstrate that mothers and children who have been separated by imprisonment can be successfully re-united and indeed, thrive when obstacles are removed and when timely support is provided. The approach was originally piloted in South London back in 2007 and is now being replicated across the country. Commonweal Housing invested £2.5 million in this project over the last 6 years which allowed both appropriate homes to be bought and leased to mothers, holistic support to be provided and external evaluation of the model to be commissioned.
Re-unite is an innovative scheme which fills a gap long since identified by prison and probation managers, third sector providers, offenders and ex-offenders themselves. Gaps –such as where children may have been taken in by social services; where probation officers have agreed that they can be returned to their mothers, with the right support and accommodation. But with no immediate access to either, this leads to them being stuck in the system. This is the point where Re-Unite Steps in.
When she was in custody Madeline was pregnant and her baby girl was born in prison and placed in the care of her ex partner. Her 9 year old son went to live with his Grandmother. On release from prison, with the help and support of Re-Unite, Madeline regained custody of both children, has a home in the same street has her mother, and has gained full-time employment in a solicitors office. Madeleine told us: “I have gained so much confidence and have gone from feeling a failure in society to being a fully paid up member of society”.
Having helped to develop the Re-Unite model for the past 8 years, I am extremely pleased that in this time has been replicated nationally across England and Wales, and now has a presence in every women’s prison in England. Re-offending rates have been reduced and Re-Unite also delivers cost savings for local authorities.
A cost benefit analysis was conducted in 2012 by respected consultant Dr Judy Renshaw. She conservatively estimated that for every pound spent on women benefiting from Re-Unite between 2011 and 2012, more than double this amount was saved (£2.22) with even greater cost savings expected in the longer term. She found that “…the largest savings occurred in reduced re-offending and less use of emergency housing and local authority child care.”
We also commissioned follow up independent evaluation by the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge:
“There is much evidence that Re-Unite is successful in accessing accommodation establishing effective support, helping the women towards stable lives, and facilitating the restoration of families Re-Unite has clearly provided the opportunity for children to return to their mothers care with the additional support at a time of transitional change, For some children, the existence of Re-Unite has certainly prevented them from being taken into care or remaining in care.” Re-Unite evaluation, Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge.
Earlier this month, Commonweal stepped back from the day to day co-ordination of Re-Unite. I am pleased to be able to tell you that a partnership between Anawim and Women’s Breakout will be now undertaking this role – supported for the next two years by Commonweal Housing. Both organisations have many years experience of supporting women in the criminal justice system.
This does not necessarily mean the immediate end of support for the project by Commonweal. However it has always been our intention to hand over Re-Unite and our other model projects at the appropriate time once we are clear that the future delivery of the model or the approach is secure.
I am pleased that Re-unite continues to offer more families the opportunity of a fresh start. It empowers women to live independent lives and so reduces their likelihood of re-offending, and ensures that children have the best possible future.
However there is still much work to be done. Key to this is ensuring that the Re-Unite programme is available for any women exiting prison where it is the right programme for them – we know it is not appropriate for every woman. To do this we need to ensure that it is embedded within the TR agenda, and is one of the tools and options available to those organisations providing support to woman. We are therefore delighted that Women’s Breakout, the voice of women’s centres across the country is helping to take Re-Unite forward.
Ultimately, however, Re-Unite as with many other excellent programmes is picking up the pieces of the disastrous policy of sending far too many women to prison; where such a sanction is unlikely to be good for them in terms of addressing behaviours, good for their children or good for wider society with the disproportionate costs in financial and human terms where alternatives exist for many women offenders.