Mother/child Bonding: Incarcerated Women Struggle to Maintain Meaningful Relationships with Their Children

By Morton, Joann B.; Williams, Deborah M. | Corrections Today, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Mother/child Bonding: Incarcerated Women Struggle to Maintain Meaningful Relationships with Their Children


Morton, Joann B., Williams, Deborah M., Corrections Today


The importance of bonding among men has become a topic of public debate in the last few years as various religious and ethnic groups have encouraged men to meet and form common ties. Since almost 40 percent of children in the United States do not live with their biological fathers,(1) increased attention also has been given to the importance of the bond between fathers and their children.

Often overlooked in this debate is the powerful role that mothers play in the development of the physical and emotional health of their children. From birth, mothers often are the ones who encourage the first smiles, words and steps from their babies. Mothers traditionally are the ones who provide the unconditional love that babies need to develop strong relationships with others in the future.

For incarcerated women, developing and maintaining meaningful relationships with their children is difficult. The most common concerns voiced by mothers in prison revolve around what is happening to their children while they are gone. More than 56,000 children have mothers in prison.(2) These children miss their mothers and have difficulty understanding why they cannot be with them.

But bonding is a two-way street. The opportunity to develop meaningful relationships is important to the emotional health and feelings of self-worth of both incarcerated mothers and their children. Recognizing the importance of bonding, correctional administrators over time have developed programs to help maintain and strengthen relationships between incarcerated women and their children.

Incarcerated Mothers

The growth in the number of women offenders in all parts of the criminal justice system has been well-documented. The number of women incarcerated at state and federal levels is approaching 80,000, while the number of women in the nation's jails is reaching 10 percent of the total, short-term facility population.

Add to this the following facts and the need for women offenders to maintain and strengthen ties with their children becomes more obvious.

* 25 percent of women admitted to prison are pregnant or have recently delivered a child;(3)

* 74 percent of women in prison have children, compared to 64 percent of men;

* Incarceration of a mother disrupts the family considerably more than incarceration of a father;(4)

* 25 percent of incarcerated women's children live with their fathers, compared to 90 percent of incarcerated men's children who live with the children's mothers;(5)

* 65 percent of incarcerated women's children live with grandparents and 10 percent are in foster care;(5)

* 90 percent of incarcerated women have contact with their children while in prison, compared to 80 percent of incarcerated men;(5)

* More than 50 percent of incarcerated women with children under 18 never have visits from their children;(5) and

* The majority of women believe they will have responsibility for their children upon release.(6)

Mother/Child Relationships

Studies have shown that the effects of maternal deprivation are widespread. Young children who are removed from their mothers for hospitalization or other reasons display immediate distress, followed by misery and apathy.(7) Another, much more serious effect of maternal deprivation is developmental retardation and general impairment of developmental progress. The longer the period of separation between the child and its mother, the greater the disturbance.(8)

However, the idea that there is some mystical relationship between a mother and a young child has been rejected in recent years. Rather than a golden period in which mother/child relationships must be fostered, researchers stress the importance of the quality of the relationship between the child and his or her mother or other significant caregivers at different stages in the child's life.

The quality of the mother/child relationship sets the stage for all other relationships that the child will have. …

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Mother/child Bonding: Incarcerated Women Struggle to Maintain Meaningful Relationships with Their Children
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