Spotlight on Mothers Project Christchurch

Volunteer lawyers from the Mothers Project in Christchurch: Annie Cao, Stephanie Grieve and Victoria Pfahlert (left to right)

Every month, Stephanie Grieve, a Christchurch-based barrister, visits Christchurch Women’s Prison. Although not practising as  criminal lawyers, nor experts in family law, Stephanie and her group of female volunteer lawyers offer their time to help women in the prison to reconnect with their children on the outside, rebuilding relationships and piecing families back together.

The Mothers Project was set up over three years ago by Wellington lawyer Stacey Shortall, with the aim of helping mothers in New Zealand’s prisons to track down, connect with and rebuild their families.  Stacey, who was involved in a similar project in New York, brought the idea back home after recognising the need for a similar kind of support and facilitation in New Zealand. The concept behind the project is to act as a facilitator, a point of contact to help mothers to understand where their children are, who is caring for them and what their rights and responsibilities are in terms of the legal processes.

Last year, following its success in Wellington and Auckland, Stacey reached out to Stephanie for help with a Christchurch roll-out. Stephanie jumped at the chance. “I thought it was an amazing project and, as a lawyer, you have to work out how to spend your extra time. I am involved in the Christchurch Arts Festival and other literary and arts events and pro-bono legal work, but this was the first time I had done anything like this, to give back to the community and really understand how many of our population are affected by crime and poverty”. Word spread quickly through the legal grapevine in Christchurch, and the programme was soon at functional capacity, with a core of 20 committed, regular volunteers from law firms across the city, ready and willing to provide its inmates with information and support.  Annie Cao, a junior lawyer at Wynn Williams, was among the project’s first recruits. “I really care about criminal justice in New Zealand and want there to be better outcomes for prisoners. At the moment, I don’t think they are getting as much support as I would like to see in prisons. I want to help”.

An estimated 87% of all female prisoners are mothers so, with 122 women at Christchurch Women’s Prison, there is plenty of work to keep Stephanie and her team busy. According to the Corrections Department, one of the major stressors contributing to re-offending amongst women is relationship breakdowns with family, including loss of custody. The volunteers deal with women from all backgrounds and levels of offending, helping women from high security units to low security and self-care units. Rather than taking the place of legal aid or prison social workers, this group of around 110 volunteers across New Zealand give their time to talk with the female inmates, becoming a touchpoint between mothers and everyone who has contact with their children, from Oranga Tamariki, the Department of Corrections and Legal Aid, to families, caregivers and schools.

No matter the level of alleged offending, the common thread between all the mothers involved in the project is their love and concern for their children. “Tears come into their eyes when they talk about their kids,” says Stephanie. “It really shows that these women really care about their kids and what happens to them… they are grateful for any help”. Children are often a positive incentive for inmates to turn away from crime, so being re-connected with their families goes a long way towards preventing re-offending.  Sometimes, this simply entails letting mothers know that their children are ok, and letting children know that their mothers love them. When asked what the mothers appreciate most about the work that Stephanie and her group of volunteers does, it is often simply that someone is prepared to listen, navigate the often complicated system, and follow up on their behalf. “They might not always be getting the information they want to hear”, says Stephanie “but at least they are getting answers”. Stephanie considers that the fact that the volunteers are independent of any agency, and turn up to the prison each month of their own accord, helps to gain the trust of the women, many of whom have lost faith in the justice system. Annie agrees. “Many prisoners feel isolated, they feel disenfranchised with the entire system, like no one is listening to them… when we go and visit, we are dedicating two hours to listen to them, listen without judgment and help in any way we can. We are completely independent, not associated with any agency. We have no agenda”.

Since their first visit in August of last year, the Christchurch-based volunteers have helped over 60 mothers, some with relatively straightforward cases, and some requiring multiple repeat visits and extensive follow-up. These numbers continue to grow and feedback from mothers and volunteers alike has been encouraging. Nearly a year in, the Christchurch project is starting to come into its own. “We are starting to get a good feel for how it all works, navigating the different relationships and interactions… working out our roles, working together”. There is a real move in the organisation to ensure that volunteers across the three centres are connected, with a new online volunteer management system, effective administration and increasingly regular telephone conference training sessions. With the often difficult and sensitive nature of the work, it is important that the volunteers are able to connect, talk about their experiences and check in with each other, so they do not feel isolated.  

On top of the benefits that the programme brings women on the inside, there are also a myriad of positive outcomes for the volunteers, who get a new perspective on the lives of some women and children in New Zealand. “Professionally, it is a good challenge… learning how to deal with confronting situations, particularly for younger volunteers,” says Stephanie of the junior lawyers she works alongside. “It is good for them to learn how to interview people, take notes, take information in and work out what the next question should be”.  Personally, Stephanie notes “it is a massive eye-opener, you realise what a cycle is going on out there… You don’t necessarily know all the details, don’t know the crimes, what’s happening with the kids, but you do feel you are able to make a small difference. If you can give them hope, that can trigger change”. As a mother herself, Stephanie says that it is hugely satisfying to see the impact that the work has and “see if you can help break that cycle”. Annie could not agree more, emphasising the importance of compassion and understanding.  “It is so important. In order to have any kind of large scale criminal justice reform, we need to have more compassion for prisoners. Without meeting them, without learning about their backgrounds and their stories, we can’t do that”.

Written by Anna Churton

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