Formative Evaluation of the Mothers with Babies Units

Why was the research of the Mothers with Babies (MWB) Units undertaken?

Housing very young children in a prison setting is a challenging and very unusual situation for Corrections staff. The Department sought an independent evaluation of its management of these special units, to provide assurance that everything possible was being done to ensure that the children were safe, that the mothers’ and the babies’ best interests were being protected, and that the children’s developmental needs were being met.

What were the main findings?

The overall conclusions were that the units have continued to develop, that positive advances have been made, and an underlying “best interests of the child” approach to decision-making was evident:

  • The report summarised published research on mother with baby programmes in prisons, which consistently shows that mother with baby units do support development of secure attachment in the child and increased parenting skills and maternal sensitivity in the mothers; research also provides some evidence that mothers with baby units can help reduce re-offending
  • A range of procedural issues were identified as having been addressed to ensure safety and well-being: for example, policies on who can pick up children and take them off-site, and role clarification amongst staff to improve consistency and co-ordination
  • Further, operational changes were noted to have occurred in order to meet the needs of the units; for example, roster changes to increase staff coverage at MWB units, and making programmes more accessible to mothers
  • Other issues noted as requiring further attention included having a mix of both male and female staff at MWB units, having dedicated unit staff, the frequency of parenting programmes, instituting alternative caregiver assessments, and shortening wait times for approval to enter the units
  • Also recommended were further training of new staff, and improved national co-ordination of the units and the ways in which the mothers with babies policy is managed.

What is the Department doing in response to these findings?

Overall, the Department is confident that its mothers with babies units are being operated in accordance with “best practice” principles. The independent evaluation report supports this view, as well as usefully assisting the Department to further improve its practices to ensure the best outcomes possible for the mothers and babies under its care.

The Department has instituted a range of responses to address all of the findings of the evaluation. Many of these were instituted well in advance of the final report being received. Responses include:

  • A national multi-agency steering group has been formed with representatives from Corrections, Child Youth and Family, NZ Police, Plunket, Ministry of Health and the Office of the Children’s Commissioner. This steering group meets quarterly, with the purpose of supporting best practice on site
  • The national multi-agency steering group is also guiding the development of collaborative practices at the local level in each prison’s area: these arrangements will mean that each of the women’s prisons will have multi-agency oversight of applications to enter the units, planning the care of the mother and baby, and their transitions back into the community
  • A National Office-led working group is conducting AVL discussions on a quarterly basis with the women’s prison managers, to provide a leadership structure around the development of the units, and to address any issues as they arise
  • The National Office group is overseeing an action plan that responds to all of the findings from the formative evaluation; this plan is continually updated, and reviewed quarterly
  • A review is underway of processes for assessing alternative caregivers, to increase confidence in the quality of care of children when spending time in the community.