Lost mothers - how women and professionals involved with the criminal justice system experience enforced separation of newborn babies

Lead Research Organisation: University of Hertfordshire
Department Name: School of Health and Social Work


The PI was awarded a one-year, full time Mildred Blaxter Post-Doctoral Fellowship from The Foundation for the Sociology of Health and Illness in 2020. The first opportunity to undertake research was as a mature doctoral student with the project: An ethnographic study into the experiences of pregnant women in English prisons. This was successfully awarded in 2018. This research had several impacts through media, presentations, publications and a change in prison policy.
In the UK, it is estimated that 6-7% of the female prison population are at varying stages of pregnancy and approximately 100 babies are born to incarcerated women each year. There are no exact data of the numbers of newborn babies removed from their mother at or soon after birth. There are six Mother and Baby Units (MBUs) in the 12 women's prisons in the UK, currently, all underutilised. Accounts from research of women being separated from their new-born babies demonstrate a deep sense of loss, yet surprisingly little research has examined experiences of the professionals and processes involved in separating mothers from their babies.
This project will comprise qualitative semi-structured interviews of the key professionals involved with pregnant women who have Criminal Justice System (CJS) involvement. Women who have been or who are in the process of being separated from their babies will be offered an in-depth face-to-face interview. The charity, Birth Companions and their Lived Experience Team will act as consultants to the project helping with recruitment, introductions, advising on participatory information, interview questions and consent forms. Non-participant observation of the processes involved will take place.
This proposal has been informed by a pilot study of the views of one group of actors (birth supporters) attending women who were being separated from their babies. This was undertaken by the PI during the Post-Doctoral Fellowship, in preparation for this proposal. Birth supporters suggested that the approach to mothers being separated from their newborn babies' cause women to face: "a huge amount of criticism, blame, judgement and a real lack of empathy."
The PI will explore imprisoned women's experiences through audio-recorded interviews and spend time observing the prison environment. This will include observation of the processes and decision making, such as sitting the 'mother and baby board'. Through audio-recorded interviews, the experiences of midwives, social workers, health visitors (HVs) and CJS staff will be elicited to understand the experiences and decision making regarding imprisoned women being separated from their babies.
An advisory group, including charities and women who have lived experience, will inform all ethics decision making. The project will be conducted with integrity and transparency, complying with the ESRC framework for research ethics. The PI has built strong links with the female prison estate and continues to volunteer with the charity Birth Companions supporting pregnant women and new mothers in prison.
The study is unique in that it is the first project to link the professions of Social Work, Health Visiting, Midwifery and CJS staff, with women prisoners' experiences at its heart. Recommendations arising from this research has the potential to build upon and further improve understanding of women's experiences and the procedures involved in removal of new-borns from their imprisoned mothers. The project will benefit academic and health research, notably in the sociology of health and illness criminology, midwifery, health visiting and social work.


10 25 50