Sharing skills for a better life
"The research is showing us that if we continue to let these women fall through the gaps, their children are 50% more likely than their peers to end up in contact with the criminal justice system themselves."
Shiree Talbot co-ordinator, Beyond Barbed Wire
Being in prison can very nearly break a young woman, says Shiree Talbot, but, in many ways, being released is just as challenging.
“You’ve come from a place where your every movement is monitored and controlled and where you have very little choice,” Ms Talbot says.
“Someone else decides everything – even what you eat and when you eat – and it makes it very difficult for women to hold on to their personal power. So when they are released from custody there are issues of self-esteem, of feeling worthless and powerless.”
Ms Talbot runs Beyond Barbed Wire, a mentoring program designed to help mothers leaving Wellington Correctional Centre, in western NSW, to make the transition back into their communities with their heads held high.
The aim of the program, delivered by Barnardos, is two-fold. It is to support the women themselves – predominantly Aboriginal, overwhelmingly young and most often serving short periods of time for relatively minor offences – and to support their parenting, for the long-term benefit of their children.
Female mentors are recruited from across western NSW and from a wide variety of backgrounds, ages and interests. They support a woman to move back into her own life at a time when she may be feeling deeply demoralised, and back into the lives of her children who may be anxious and insecure after having temporarily lost her.
“It’s not a matter of the mentor or Barnardos doing something for the woman or to the woman,” Ms Talbot says of the program, which began in late 2013. “These are women who have had things done to or for them so many times before. It’s about empowering the woman to be the best she can possibly be, and just having someone to walk beside her on the journey she decides to take.”
The role of the mentor, she says, is quite distinct from a case worker or other formal supports. “It’s certainly not a professional relationship and it’s not quite a friendship. It’s a supportive relationship.”
Mentors, matched with women according to age group and interests, fill out a weekly activity sheet to let Ms Talbot and her colleagues know how the relationship is progressing. Conversations are confidential, though they must flag any serious concerns about the woman’s children. Barnardos covers small costs, like a coffee or a milkshake. Licensed premises are the only prohibition.
The focus is to encourage the woman, who is usually in severe financial hardship, out of her home.
“It’s things like going to the swimming pool or spending an afternoon at the park doing art and craft,” says Ms Talbot, herself an Aboriginal woman who has spent time in jail separated from her four children.
“There’s a part of Dubbo Zoo that’s a big parkland and it’s free. There’s a great opportunity to take sausages have a barbecue. It’s role modelling to the mum that she doesn’t need a lot of money to be able to participate in activities with her children.”
Mentors sometimes accompany the woman and her children to get library cards. “Especially the young Aboriginal women have not felt welcome at the library,” Ms Talbot says. “So their mentor is that person with a little bit more confidence who can show them it is OK, you can come in and no-one is going to yell at you.”
The mentors, she says, relish the opportunity to use their own skills and strengths to help meet the needs of disadvantaged families in their community. They undertake a training program, specially tailored and delivered through Forbes Tafe, and get together every four weeks to debrief and share ideas.
Despite its early promise, Ms Talbot emphasises Beyond Barbed Wire is not a panacea for women living in traumatic situations, who need intensive professional support.
There is frequently a long time delay after referral before women receive mental health or drug and alcohol support, she says. “The intervention really should be happening early but often it gets to crisis point before people take any notice and there’s a real risk of people ending up back in custody.”
She urges new approaches to offending in women, whose incarceration rates compared with those of men are disproportionately high and still rising, for the sake of current and future generations.
“The research is showing us that if we continue to let these women fall through the gaps, their children are 50% more likely than their peers to end up in contact with the criminal justice system themselves.”